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Grey Divorces: When Parents of Adult Children Divorce

Image of an adult daughter with her mother

Grey divorces have been on the rise for a while. And, no matter the age, an event like this can disrupt your entire life.

While we hear plenty about its impact on younger children, we rarely hear about the impact of divorce on adult children. The assumption is that adult children are of “adult age” and, so, are better equipped to handle the aftermath of divorce. This may be true, but it does not diminish the unique challenges adult children have to face.

Divorce in later life after decades of marriage often has more impact on adult children than children whose parents divorced earlier in their lives. Younger children have more time to normalize their parents’ separation. For adult children, their normal is their parents together.

Inherently, grey divorces pose additional challenges as they relate to age, physical and mental health, housing situation and financial stability. These factors all play a critical role in how parents will re-organize their post-divorce affairs. Many of these can and will also uniquely impact their adult children.

In some cases, one parent will move-in with the adult child – or rely on the adult child for financial support. In higher conflict divorces, adult children can be placed in the middle of the conflict and pressured to take sides. If grandchildren are involved, the separation or divorce may present obstacles in the development of healthy relationships between both grandparents and grandchildren.

Some adult children have described the divorce of their parents as a role reversal. The child becomes the parent. Stuck in the middle, negotiating and de-escalating conflict and minimizing the impact of potentially bitter and angry behaviour on the entire family.

Not all grey divorces affect adult children in a negative way. Some children may see their parents flourish after floundering – relief and growth from a relationship that hasn’t been healthy for some time.

Not all grey divorces end in battles where their adult children are dragged in. But some do. The following tips can help address and alleviate the associated stresses the burden of grey divorce can have on adult children.

  • Have a discussion with both parents – together and in the same room if possible. Talk about options to establish healthy boundaries for everyone during and post-divorce. And talk about future plans, such as new financial realities, where are they going to live, what supports do they already have in place and what others they need. While this may be an uncomfortable conversation, having clarity about next steps will alleviate a great deal of anxiety for the entire family.
  • If a rational conversation with both parents is not possible, involve a third-party facilitator to lead and guide the conversation. It often helps to have someone neutral in the room with “fresh eyes” and emotional distance from the issues impacting your family.
  • You do not have to be the sounding board – if the details of their separation hurt you, respectfully and politely ask them not to share them with you. At no stage in parental divorce is it healthy for parents to denigrate or speak ill of each other, especially to their children, regardless of age.
  • Practice self-care, not self-blame. The shock of parental divorce can cause a great deal of anxiety. It is natural to look back and re-evaluate your family memories: “Did they stay together for the kids?; “Was it all a façade?”; “How come I didn’t see it?”. If you are going down that path, do it with caution. The lens you are using today to evaluate is not the same you were using during childhood, and your parents are not the same people they were back then. Each life experience impacts, affects and changes every one of us, differently. Be kind and patient with yourself. Talk things through with a friend, a counsellor, or join a group if you feel you need additional support. And, hang on to the good memories! They can play an integral role in the healing process.

This too shall pass

After years of parents together, the adult children of grey divorce will now need to embrace their parents apart. It won’t always be easy but it could present opportunities to forge a different kind of relationship with each parent.

Blog posts and podcasts are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.

About the Author

Laura Tarcea

Laura is a family mediator dedicated to supporting families through divorce or separation. With a background in Mental Health, Research, Program Development, and a Master of Laws in Dispute Resolution, Laura brings valuable insight and critical knowledge to parents. She strongly believes that a healthy co-parenting relationship will protect children from short-term and long-term damage. As such, Laura is a supporter of out-of-court processes to help equip parents with appropriate tools to succeed in their next chapter.

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