How to Help Your Parent Who Is Getting a Divorce
Regardless of how old you are, the end of your parents’ relationship can still hit you hard. You have a lifetime of memories and emotions woven around these people, but now with their divorce, you may see them – and yourself as their child – in a new way. How do you navigate this new terrain and still take care of yourself and your relationship with them?
Taking care of yourself during your parents' divorce
Yes, you’re an adult. And yes, your parents’ divorce can still be a traumatic event.
Thinking about your parents’ divorce can stir up emotions from the past – some good and some not so good. Your parents’ divorce can also represent a series of “lasts” for your family life: the last birthday together, the last holiday meal, the last family vacation. These traditions you’ve held firmly throughout your own life may, at least temporarily, seem to be a thing of the past.
If you’re lucky, your parents have been a stable presence throughout your life. But now, you’re seeing sides of them you may never have seen before. While it might have been easier to idealize them in the past, watching them as they express and deal with their anger and hurt toward each other can put a new perspective on your current role. It can even result in a kind of role reversal as you become the adult to their childlike behavior.
While your parents are facing all the feelings and issues that divorcing couples face, you – even as an adult – are facing your own feelings as the child of these people. You want to be supportive and be there for them, but you also need to take care of yourself.
Understanding your boundaries
Are your parents sharing secrets and resentments with you that they’ve harbored for years? In subtle ways, are each of them asking you to take sides? For the sake of your own mental health, it’s vital to set and maintain boundaries as you support them through their divorce process.
Younger children often get caught up in the contentious nature of their parents’ divorce. Parents can unwittingly manipulate young children against the other parent during divorce. But you are no longer a young child, and you can be firm about your expectations.
You still love and want to have a relationship with these people. But tug-of-war battles between your parents are even more destructive and awkward when they begin to involve extended family. Be clear that you love them both, but you won’t be siding with either of them. While you want to be there for them, you need your own time and space. And you expect them to respect the relationship you have with both of them as their child.
Looking after your own well-being
You are doing your own grieving, and no matter how hard you try, there will be many sad and awkward moments going forward. You will no doubt hurt one or both of them without meaning to. There will be jealousy and feelings of being left out. Time together may never feel the same. And through it all, you must give yourself a good dose of self-love and “this, too, shall pass” self-talk.
As an adult in this situation, you’re experiencing roles at both ends of the spectrum. In the child role, you’re feeling sadness, nostalgia, and a sense of loss for the future. In the adult role, you likely want to swoop in like a superhero to save your parents from feeling all the feelings that come with divorce.
You'll be unable to fix it on both ends, and you may very well expect too much from yourself in the process. Striking a balance – and giving yourself a pass when you fail – is critical. You may need support to get through your own grief, whether it’s from your spouse, a good friend, or a mental health professional
What to say to your divorcing parents
While you want to do everything you can for your parents, you know you can’t solve their problems. And you want to be able to communicate with them individually without getting caught in the middle. Sharing this honestly with them is important.
Blaming and shaming have no room in these conversations. When Mom wants to complain about Dad’s years of X,Y,Z behavior, you can gently remind her that you understand dad’s imperfections and still love him, regardless. If Dad wants to complain about Mom spending all his “hard-earned money” over the years, you may remind him of the times he was proud of how she cared for herself and her family.
Tell your parents that you can appreciate and understand what they’re going through, but you prefer to stay out of blame mode and be grateful for what they both have brought to your life.
What are some things children need to know when their parents divorce?
When young children go through their parents’ divorce, they need some reassurance. They want to know that:
- Their parents’ divorce was not their fault.
- Both parents still love them.
- Both parents still want to spend time with them.
- There will be some real emotional hurdles for everyone.
- Everyone will try their best to navigate these hurdles with grace and understanding, but that may not always be easy or immediately possible.
Adult children of divorced parents often need to hear the same things.
As an adult, your parents’ divorce can be an emotionally fragile time for you. Their marriage may have shaped how you saw marriage and family in general and can call all sorts of your own realities into question. You might want your own reassurances, but as an adult, you’re expected to handle things and push through. It’s important to remember that everyone is navigating the best they can in the moment. This includes you.
Tips for adult children of divorce
Research shows that divorce has doubled for couples who are 50 and over. While many resources deal with divorce and how it affects younger children, far fewer resources focus on adult children of divorce. That adult perspective is where coping with a parent’s divorce can be a very different dynamic.
As an adult who is trying to help one or both parents through divorce, there are some important things to keep in mind.
- You will experience your own set of emotions. Your parents were your emotional foundation, and now you may feel that foundation slip under your feet. Honor these feelings, and take time to grieve a very important part of your life.
- Don’t get stuck in the middle of your parents’ divorce. While you may see some unfairnesses, it’s best to let them navigate their differences as adults without compromising your relationship with either of them, if possible.
- Be honest with them. You’ll have to make some decisions regarding family issues, get-togethers, and holidays. There will be some hard times. Your best bet is to discuss this openly so they understand your concerns, expectations, and how you’re trying to accommodate both of them and keep them in your life. Their reaction to this knowledge is up to them.
- Set up clear and solid boundaries. You are an adult, and you have the right to decide what is right for you and your family. If your parents want to spend time with you, they will need to respect this.
- Find the good. You understand both parents’ strengths and weaknesses and probably have a good idea of what led to their divorce. Your parents are mere humans, and they are the product of their own family lives and upbringings. Understanding where they came from in the context of how they’re reacting now will allow you to understand them better as people and maybe feel closer to them.
Even though you’re an adult, your feelings are valid, and honoring them is important. If you are an adult child of divorcing parents, give yourself the time and space to grieve before you try to help them with their issues. Consider getting some professional help or reaching out to a support group so you feel less alone. At Hello Divorce, we have many resources to help you navigate divorce, whether it’s yours or that of people you love.