Older children whose
parents divorce

When parents separate, often the focus falls to the younger children of the family, and understandably so. There is ample evidence of the potential negative impact that divorce can have on families. In recent years, a range of services have emerged for families with children experiencing divorce and parental separation. These services include child focused consultations, support groups for children and case management programs for high conflict families as well as children’s contact services.

While these services provide a vital resource for families, there is a growing awareness of the often unmet needs of older children and adult children of families who are separating. That is, the 18 to 25 year age bracket, give or take a year or two, under and above.

The following aims to identify specific issues facing adolescents and adult children which can be compounded when parents’ divorce.

  1. Consider that beneath that ‘I don’t care’ persona and minimalist verbal utterances, the late teen, early 20’s child is likely to be confused, angry and at a loss as a result of the emotional wrenching that occurs with divorce. Young people are often confused about showing the outside world their emotions as doing so is still equated with being a child. Underneath that ‘gruff’ appearance is likely to be hurt and disappointment.
  2. Adolescence is generally a time for finding independence, creating your mark on the world and discovering who you really are. Divorce can easily undermine and put on hold all those processes.
  3. Particularly in early adolescence, still having your parents to fall back on is important. However unlike early childhood, adolescents and young adults, may want their parents close by, but not too close. This relates to the adolescent or adult child understanding the influence they can have on others. Maintaining distance is one way they can feel influential.
  4. For adolescents and young adults the challenges of adult life are just presenting themselves. Furthering their education, getting a trade or starting work, socialising in a wider social milieu, often involving alcohol and other substances are all a part of those challenges.
  5. When parents are separating, they are preoccupied with what’s happening to them and unable to fully focus on the needs of their children whatever age. If their child is aloof and unreachable or wanting to appear confident and independent, many parents could find the extra effort to reach out to them just too difficult.
  6. The oldest child, often take on a parenting role to their younger siblings; who in turn, will look to them for support and security. This leaves the emotions of the adolescent and young adult even more invisible and them even more vulnerable, particularly during parental separation.
  7. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of divorce at this stage in a young person’s life, is that adolescents and young adults are themselves embarking on pursuing or developing intimate relationships. Family breakdown can skew a person’s sense of what a relationship can endure or not as the case maybe.

Hints and Tips

  1. Try to keep things steady and secure, resist making big changes quickly (changing schools, locations etc.)
  2. Make time to talk with your adolescent even if they are unresponsive, knowing that you’re there for them will be important and a source of reassurance.
  3. Listen to their concerns, some which may be wildly illogical and others very sensible
  4. Offer to help them find their own support, they may want to talk, just not to you. Children, whatever age are still sensitive about upsetting their parents.
  5. Keep conflict between you and the other parent to a minimum or seek help in building a strong parental alliance. Remember even in separation you are still modelling how to conduct interpersonal relationships to your children.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/200908/parental-divorce-and-adolescents

https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/parental-separation-adolescent-perspective-what-do-they-say

https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/family-relationships/helping-teens-adjust-separation

Matt Garrett

Manager of Hunter centre Relationships Australia NSW

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