The impact of divorce and separation on adult children

When a couple with dependent children divorce or separate they will be very aware of the impact this will have on their children, and this will normally be a major consideration in the decision about whether and when to separate.

However, often less thought is given to the impact that a separation can have upon a couple’s older, independent children. It can be assumed that if they have reached adulthood, a separation may have less impact or they will have developed coping mechanisms to help them to adjust to their parents’ split.

I recently discussed this issue with Dermot Cox, a BACP-registered counsellor, who has a particular interest in the issue following his experiences in supporting adult children of divorce.

The perception in our society is that when children leave school or home, or move on to university, they have “flown the nest” and reached independence, and can live without the support of their parents or carers.  With this in mind, why do you think that a couple’s split can affect their adult dependents?

In my work as a counsellor, many of the difficulties that lead to clients seeking help have roots in their relationships with their parents.

Attachment theory is a field within psychology that has rightly moved into mainstream thinking. Most people have a sense of the desirability for children of growing up with secure attachment.

Living through the experience of your parents splitting up clearly has the potential to disrupt your sense of security.

How can the impact of separation upon adult children be minimised?

This can be mitigated when the parents stay close to their children and manage their separation in a respectful way that does not subject children to the additional stress of watching their parents in conflict.

Are there any particular trends as to groups that tend to be more affected? Are we talking about young adults who perhaps are away at university or starting a new career, but have only very recently reached the cusp of adulthood?

I’ve been surprised to find that by far the most common presenting or underlying issue causing difficulties for the students I see is their parents’ divorce or separation. It is a key issue for around three-quarters of my clients. This is true for mature students in their 50s and 60s as well as for younger students.

I’ve worked for some time at the student counselling service of my local university.

It’s true whether divorce occurred when they were very young or whether it’s occurring now. Many people wishing to leave a relationship hold off until the children leave home.

Do you feel that there is much awareness of this problem within society?

I feel this is a largely hidden dimension in the widespread occurrence of emotional and relationship difficulties in our society. It’s hidden because there is an assumption that once people reach the age of 18 they become ‘adult’ and somehow can manage the impact of their parents’ divorce on their own – an expectation we would not have of the older adults going through divorce themselves.

The family justice system has little interest in children once they reach 18. NHS support for children’s mental health needs through CYPMHS (Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services), previously CAMHS, largely ends when they are 18.

What impact can a separation have upon an adult child?

Young (and older) adults themselves internalise the view that now they are ‘grown up’ they won’t be affected by what happens now or what happened in the past between their parents.

All the same, they may experience unhappiness or relationship problems that eventually lead them to counselling, where part of the work may be to uncover strong feelings of loss, abandonment and anger.

These feelings often arise even when parents have handled divorce and separation with real care in order to minimise emotional disturbance for their children.

But children can also experience parents who try to recruit them in attacks on their ex-partner or use them for their own emotional support, particularly if they can conveniently consider their children to be adult now. Then children can also feel torn apart and resentful.

Do you have any advice for those going through a separation at the moment, as to how best to look out for their adult children?

A few practical suggestions that parents going through divorce (and their advisers) could consider include:

  • start from the position that children of any age will be deeply affected by your divorce and may need additional external support such as individual counselling (and/or, in the case of young children, family therapy);
  • recognise that, however well you handle the process, you will not be able to provide all the support needed: children and young adults need to be able to speak to someone outside of the family;
  • remember that young adult children are often barely adult but their needs are often overlooked – encourage them to feel comfortable about seeking support; and
  • avoid trying to get your own needs for support met through your children, whatever age they are –this could be a sign that you may need to consider counselling yourself.

Do you find that there is a (perhaps delayed) impact for adults, whose parents or carers separated when they were children, and there wasn’t appropriate support available for them at the time?

The impact I’ve described of divorce and separation on adult children is in most cases a continuation of the distress they experienced when they were younger and which they were not able to express and process at the time.

The scale of the difficulties experienced by children as a result of the breakdown of the relationship between their parents, and sometimes frequent changes in parents’ relationships, is a problem which tends to be neglected.

This may be partly because divorce and separation are now so common that they are seen as part of everyday life. But this doesn’t lessen the consequences for each individual child.

How do you think this delayed impact can be prevented?

The family justice system claims to prioritise protecting the interests of children during and after the process and ensuring that children’s wishes are heard and respected.

The report (“What about me?” Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separationlays bare the lack of genuine support for dependent children and makes excellent recommendations on the fundamental changes that are urgently needed.  These include providing a framework of support services for children and young people, parenting programmes and improving the interface with the family court

My comments

When supporting individuals through separation, I take time to get to know a client’s background, family set-up, drivers and priorities. I recognise the importance of ensuring that they, and their wider family, have the appropriate support in place to help them through one of the biggest events of their life. This includes building a team who are best-placed to provide that support, including coaches, counsellors, therapists and financial advisors.

Significant changes are needed within the family justice system to better support children stuck in the middle of parental conflict.  This will need to be accompanied by a societal shift to recognise the fundamental rights of children and to ensure that they are protected as much as possible from parental conflict, and that they receive the appropriate support to address the impact of adult separation upon them. 

It would be good to see the reach of such support extended to include young adults over 18, who are often excluded from the system and more difficult to reach, but equally impacted, albeit in different ways. 

Dermot Cox is a BACP-registered counsellor


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