Divorce with Kids 18 to 25

Family, Heartbreak

Appropriate Boundaries between Parents and Older Kids


Micki McWade

Every parent going through divorce hopes to avoid damaging his or her children in the process. The children’s well being is the first goal and strong intention every parent articulates when I meet with them as their collaborative divorce coach. I tell parents that research results show that minimizing hurt is possible if parents have the right information and act accordingly.

The impact of divorce on younger children is obvious. They will divide their time between two parents’ homes, cope with two separate family structures and often miss one parent or the other. There are laws in each state that dictate how children under 18 will be provided for.

Guidelines are not as obvious for young adults 18 to 25. These young people are getting ready to leave home or may be in college or in the military, for example. It may seem that their parents’ divorce should affect them less, and it’s true on a practical day-to-day basis, but the emotional and psychological impact will surely disrupt their lives.

No one is perfect, particularly when under stress, and parents may make some typical, but fortunately avoidable or correctable mistakes. Here’s how to avoid some of the more common problems for older children:
Be discriminating. Parents may have the mistaken notion that since their young person is not a child, they can relax the protective parental boundary and tell them everything they are thinking and feeling. This is not appropriate and here’s why:
The young adult should be working on becoming independent and has a normal developmental drive to gradually reduce dependency on parents. This is a healthy step towards establishing his or her own life. A parental divorce may thwart this process if the young person believes he or she is responsible for a parent’s emotional well being. Confiding in them about worries will make them feel responsible, anxious or inadequate, since they aren’t able to change much themselves.

Parents are still parents. In other words, young adult children are not to be treated as friends. Parents must stay in the role of parent, offering support and reassurance. This is actually true for offspring of any age. It’s destabilizing for them to be exposed to what has been private information between their parents in the past and therefore changes the nature of the relationship.

For divorcing adults, talking and processing thoughts and feelings are important, but not with your kids. Do this with a therapist, in a support group or with friends. They will hear it differently than your children will, because they are not directly impacted by what you say. Children and parents are intimately connected in a very different way than either are with their friends. It’s important to keep that parent-child boundary in place and not slip into confiding in a young adult inappropriately.

Young adults should not be exposed to the misdeeds of their parents by the other parent, if possible. A son or daughter will make assessments on his or her own. Those assessments will vary from child to child and change over time, based on their own observations and experience. Actions speak louder than words.
Be cool. Remember that you are setting an example of how an adult should act under stress. Maintaining dignity and self-control is appreciated by the young adult. They will be disturbed and worried if a parent “loses it.” Get support, aside from your child. If depression sets in, see your family doctor and a therapist. Depression and anxiety are conditions that can definitely be improved. Taking care of yourself is an adult responsibility.
Be nice. Remember that having had children together, you will be in relationship with the other parent forever, to one degree or another. Don’t make things worse. Children rely on their parents to do the right thing. There are major occasions to come--graduations, weddings, births, grandchildren’s events, and if there’s a problem. You will both want to be there..
Be careful. While it may be surprising to hear an announcement of divorce, the young adult has observed the marital dynamic throughout their lives and may intuitively know why this decision has been made. He or she may ask for information, but use judgment in terms of content. Again, don’t over-confide. They may think they want to know, but they will wish they didn’t after the boundary has been crossed.
Be prepared. People of this age still need a safe place to land. Becoming independent is a gradual process. When an 18 year old leaves for college or the military, they still need the notion of “home” particularly because they are usually home a lot in the first few years. A secure place to come and go from will help them gain confidence as they push themselves out of the nest. They are likely to ask “Where’s home going to be? What will happen to my stuff?” Be prepared to answer those questions.

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Divorce isn’t easy and requires more maturity than most of us have to do it well. It’s better to avoid mistakes now, than try to repair damage for years to come.

This article was originally published at http://www.mickimcwade.com/mickimcwade/Blog/Entries/2011/12/9_Divorce_with_Kids_18_to_25.html. Reprinted with permission from the author.