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Adult Children of Divorce: An Attorney’s Perspective

Written exclusively for Feeling Barefoot by guest blogger Diana Mercer:

 
It seems like older children take their parents’ divorce much harder than the younger ones do.  As much as a divorce rocks the world of a child under 12 years old, mostly these kids are resilient and they adapt to the change in circumstances.  And the younger they are, the better they adapt.

For the babies of divorce, two houses is the only world they’ve ever known.

And as sad as that is, my heart really aches for the older children, or adult children, of divorce. 

Here’s what I’ve seen happen to older kids in my 23 years as a divorce lawyer and mediator:

  • Children choosing sides on their own---or being encouraged to choose sides by one or both parents, and becoming completely estranged, sometimes permanently
  • Having to “parent” their parents and grow up too fast. Parents start to rely on their kids to be their best friends and confidantes in a way that isn’t appropriate.  The children literally take over the role of the former spouse (sometimes even sexually)
  • Struggling with their own relationships because the relationship they thought their parents had turns out to be a sham and now they don’t know what a successful relationship looks like
  • Languishing in school because they aren’t at either house long enough for either parent to enforce homework rules and study habits
  • Being left too much on their own while parents work or date
  • Feeling weird that parents are dating when they’re coming into their own sexual maturity
  • Being assured that their college education was going to be paid for…at least partly…….but so much money was spent in the divorce their college fund is gone.  So instead of Northwestern, they’re now headed to community college and living at home
  • Asked to be happy for their parents when they find new partners, and asked to adapt too quickly to new step families
  • Having to adjust to a series of step families as their parents jump from relationship to relationship. The divorce rate in the US is about 50% for first marriages….and 75% for second marriages, and even higher for third and fourth marriages, particularly when children are involved
  • A general failure to launch…..just not quite growing up.  The irony of this issue is that it’s often the “good” kids who “adapted well” to the divorce at the time who turn up with problems later.  The kids who acted out during the divorce actually get their parents’ attention and their issues get addressed. The kid who keeps up his grades and never smokes cigarettes is the one who’s turn to flounder will come later on.

I saw little or none of this with younger children.  

The one major problem I did see with the younger ones happened in extreme circumstances, what people are now calling Parental Alienation, and that the psychology community is just now deciding whether it’s an actual “syndrome” or not.  Parental alienation happens when one parent completely brainwashes a child against the other parent.  That’s not to say that the second parent had no role in the process; after all, if the parental relationship was where it should have been the brainwashing was much less likely to work.  But it happens to younger kids sometimes because they are…..younger.  They don’t have as strong a bond with one parent as they might have had if they were 10 years older.

But the older kids are old enough to have a say in their parent-child relationship, even if they have to sneak away to be with the other parent, as a friend of mine did when we were teens.

So what happens to the older kids is even more heartbreaking, because there’s less time and opportunity for repair.  If you’re older and out of the house, you don’t have teachers and guidance counselors looking over your shoulder. You don’t see your folks every day.  You’re busy with college or culinary school or work and unless you’re really fumbling nobody suggests you talk to a therapist.

So the older kids get lost.  That’s just my opinion.  I’m not a research scientist but I’ve seen enough of it to know there’s a pattern. A very unfortunate pattern.

My favorite book on the subject:  We’re Still Family:  What Grown Children Have to Say about their Parents’ Divorce by Constance Ahrons, Ph.D. (Perennial Currents/Harper Collins 2004) 


Diana Mercer is an Attorney-Mediator and the founder of Peace Talks Mediation Services, http://www.peace-talks.com. She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) http://www.makingdivorcework.com and Your Divorce Advisor (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) http://www.yourdivorceadvisor.com and writes for the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-mercer as well as her own blog Making Divorce Work http://makingdivorceworkblog.com.


  

12 comments:

  1. Less time and opportunity for repair.
    No teachers/guidance counselors looking over your shoulder.
    No one suggesting you should talk to a therapist.

    These are the most applicable comments in your writing when it comes to adult children of divorce ( meaning children who ARE already adults when their parents divorce).

    Divorce is the word to describe a tearing of a union by two people. The specifics are unique to each divorce, but the act is the same.

    There should be a different word for what happens TO children when a divorce occurs in their family of orgin. And I truly think that there could be a completely different word for what happens to ADULT children when a divorce occurs in their family of orgin.

    Almost without exception, most people who know about my parents divorce ( when I was in my early 40's) will ask me how my parent (who was "left" by the betraying spouse) is doing. There was maybe one or two people in several years since the divorce who have EVER asked how I was doing.

    I would assume ( and have observed it) that when parents of younger children divorce, MANY people will ask how the children are doing. And probably no one asks the children how a parent is doing.

    When you are an adult and your parents divorce, you are expected to shoulder your parent's pain and it is assumed that your pain is not as great. Nothing is further from the truth!!!
    An adult has the misfortune to understand much to a greater degree, have more loss, and more responsibility to one or both parents.

    It is a difficult role and maybe a new word needs to be found to describe the unique set of circumstances that carry a world of dynamics , very different than what may occur at a different time in life.

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  2. I would say your experiences have done you well because you have hit my life almost spot-on Diana. My parents divorced when I was 12 and I can very much relate to what you posted.

    Tali-I am really enjoying your blog as an ACOD, your experiences differ a little from mine, so it's interesting. Especially since we are the same age :) Good luck to you!

    I will be launching my own blog soon but it will be more focused on being a Child of Divorce as opposed to an ACOD. I hope to interact more with both of you in the process!

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  3. A word from Tali's mother: I am so proud of my daughter. That's it, I could just end the post with that one sentence. I am so proud of my daughter. I am so proud that there are 'Internet people' out there who are finding her words, and then expressing that it helped them, that they felt someone reached out and touched them, that her words make sense. And then, a divorce attorney and mediator, Diana Mercer, pops up and recognizes Tali's work and they discuss it. I am bursting with pride, of her clarity of mind, her perseverance to get through this, her openness to share her thoughts, and her very ability to collect her thoughts and be able to express them.

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  4. Thanks for posting your thoughts. I generally agree -- accept with the comments about parental alienation.

    I think in parental alienation the younger ones are more easily alienated from the formerly loved parent. Younger children live in a black and white world. They have not yet developed the optional thinking and reasoning skills of teenagers. As you know, the blame for a divorce is rarely just one parent's fault. Yet the alienating parent will present a very black and white picture about the reasons for the divorce and force the younger child to align with him or her. Older children are more likely to recognize the "gray" in these situations and if they have good ego strength, can avoid the pressure to align with the alienating parent.

    Obviously, there is a lot more to parental alienation than can be posted here. For more information, and resources, on parental alienation you can visit http://www.afamilysheartbreak.com.

    Please keep up the good work.

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  5. This was an awesome post as they all are. Thank you, Tali, for continuing to write. I don't always comment just because right now I am so conflicted and still in the thick of the beginnings of this new journey that I don't always know how to even get my feelings out. However, I do want you to know that your posts always, always help so much. To know that I am not alone and that my feelings are valid, that is huge.

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  6. I just realized what Serenity said in her comment about Less time and opportunity for repair. That totally just hit me. You are so, so right, Serenity. That has been one of my most difficult things to deal with. This nightmare started for us in Mid September. Well, since then, I have had little to no time to process it. I am a wife to a railroader so our life is filled with crazy schedules. I am a sole parent often just due to my husband's hectic and demanding work schedule. I stay home with our almost 4 year old. Life is just crazy so with all of its demands, I rarely have time to just think and process. It is so frustrating sometimes. I often wish I could just run to the coffee shop and sit by myself and think or jump in the car and drive a scenic drive and process. The opportunity though is just pretty non existent. That is an excellent, excellent point. I did take Tali's cue and start my own blog on ACOD just as a therapeutic outlet to myself really and hopefully a help to someone else at some point. That has definitely helped, but daily demands of life still get in the way often.

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  7. I'm sorry, what?!!! the comment about the role of the adult child taking on a sexual nature (as in the former spouse) with the other parent. Excuse me, did I read that right?? If not, clarification is needed. This site has been helpful but I was a little taken aback by that comment.

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  8. I have to admit that I was a little taken aback by that statement as well. Yikes.

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  9. I've heard this before....but from what I've read I think the sex part is very rare. I think more the adult child does things like a daughter helping a father cook or do the more domestic things (buy gifts, organize the house, etc). Or a son helping a mom fix or move things. Sometimes it's more serious though, as when a child tries to monitor a parent's addictions or behaviors. Or gets in the middle of family disagreements. I think maybe I do this with my dad so I'm watching carefully. He needs to fix his own stuff.

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  10. Totally agree with this--the support system is not the same as when you were a child. That's why I started counseling--I didn't know where else to go.

    I've also started a blog about my experiences as an adult child of divorce: http://lifeasavroom.blogspot.com/. Please check it out and pass it along to others who may benefit from it!

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  11. Thanks for this post. It is so relieving to find any validation at all, so I really appreciate it. I just started a blog on this subject as well, and I linked to this post because this is stuff that really needs to be understood. One thing that I think is really missing from this entry however is the differences in social fallout for ACODs. I've lost much of my community as well as my family, as if divorce is contagious. The whole entry can be read over on my blog Adult Child of Gray Divorce: http://adultchildofgraydivorce.blogspot.com/2011/03/introducing-amazing-disappearing.html

    Thanks again.

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  12. yea joe i agree my roommate & I went through different upbrings but yet we were both socially and mentally dramatized by our divorced parents. Furtunately we learned to forgive and being to heal after learning things about ourselves in this book.
    http://www.amazonsells.tk/divorce

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