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Parental separation: how to support your adult children when you and your partner separate

Posted 30th January 2020

Parents can sometimes feel that when their children leave home, whether to university or to start their own families, their responsibilities as parents are largely done. It’s possible to underestimate the impact of major family change on the adult children who no longer live at home. For example children, whatever their age, often feel a significant sense of loss if and when their parents sell the childhood home, even if they also understand the reasons why it has to be sold. This sense of loss and disorientation can be so much more when parents separate, even if the grown-up children already had an inkling that their parents had grown apart. They may feel that the familiar world of their childhood has been destroyed & that their parents are no longer dependable. Just because they themselves are no longer children does not mean they do not feel the impact.  

Ben saw himself as independent, proud of his start-up business. When his parents, in their late sixties, told him and his sister they were separating he initially took this in his stride, saying theirs was a rational decision and there was no reason they should stay together just because they had been married for so long. When he saw his mother alone in the family home and his father arranging his tiny flat to mirror the sitting room he’d left, Ben felt upset and when months later they sold the family home he was heartbroken. “It was my childhood home. Even after I’d bought my own flat, it was still home”. 

Even if your children know that you have been unhappy, they may still be angry with both you and your now ex-partner for behaving in ways that they experience as selfish or adolescent. In particular, they may be embarrassed, hurt or angry if one of you has a new partner. A new partner may be seen as having ‘stolen’ you, from them as well as from their other parent. Even if no-one else is involved they are very likely to have conflicting loyalties, and feel torn about where to show support, whilst also wanting or needing support themselves.  They are likely to have some very similar feelings to those a much younger child would have, but they might feel under more pressure to keep those feelings to themselves or they might feel that they ‘shouldn’t’ mind so much.   

Kirsty felt sad when her parents separated, but she was loving university and saw both her parents in the holidays, and they both came to visit her. Sometimes they would still go out together as a family for birthdays, like they always had, Kirsty felt that she had not been too badly affected by the separation However, when a few years later her mother met a new partner, Kirsty was horrified and furious. She felt abandoned by her mother and very protective of her father.   

Grown up children might have many thoughts about their parents’ separation, but some common thoughts are: 

  • Have we been living a lie?  (especially if the news of the separation felt unexpected) 
  • Will anything ever be the same again?  
  • How do I split my time between visits to each parent?  
  • What about ordinary events like going to see grandparents together at Christmas?  How do we choose who to celebrate important events with? Will such times always be horribly uncomfortable?   Who will come to the graduation / wedding etc., and can both parents be there together? 
  • Who can I turn to when I need support?  
  • Where should my loyalties lie?  (especially if the separation seems acrimonious, maybe accusations are flying) 

Exactly how your adult child responds will be affected by many factors, including their personality, their previous experiences (if any) of loss / major life events, their age and stage of life and the quality of their relationship with each of you as parents.  It is likely that a twenty year old will feel much more personally involved in the events of your separation than, say, a forty year old – though not necessarily.  If your child has had previous major losses in their life then it’s also possible that the separation might stir up some of these – for example, for adults who were adopted as children or who have experienced major bereavements.   

So how can you support your adult children through some of these difficulties?  Some suggestions that might help: 

  • Speak to them / phone them just as often as you always did – keep up to date with what is going on in their lives even if your own in turmoil. 
  • Spend time with them; put yourself out for them. If you are introducing them to a new partner make sure you also have time with your children on your own. 
  • Make space for them to express their feelings, whatever these are and accept that these are valid responses, even they also seem unfair.  Equally, your child may not want to talk too much about the impact on them, they might prefer to share their feelings with friends / a partner.  
  • Acknowledge this is also a big change for them, and one that they have not sought or had a say in. 
  • Do not expect them to like your new partner, but do require them to be courteous. 
  • Just as with younger children, avoid putting your children in a situation where they feel they are expected to take sides or they are hearing all about how unreasonably the ex-partner has behaved   
  • Try to avoid using your children as your main people to confide in about your own distress, anger or confusion 
  • If two families are merging there are going to be different family ways to negotiate. These require patience and negotiation, especially from you and your new partner.  

In many ways, the range of responses that an adult might have when their parents separate are very similar to those a younger child might have, as in relation to you they are still the children.  It is likely to feel reassuring when they can observe that no matter what other major upheavals are going on practically (e.g. house moves, families merging) that you are still also the parents and that you are therefore able to both be considerate of them & their feelings and also able to manage your own feelings via your own support network.  If this feels like a tall order, you might also want to seek out some professional support (counselling, therapy) in order to help you process your own feelings at the same time as remaining supportive of your children.