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How to Talk with Your Adult Children About Your Upcoming Separation or Dissolution of Marriage

by Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., LMFT, www.DivorcePeacemaking.com

The following are some tips for you as you prepare to talk with your adult children. You care about doing the best you can for your children because you are reading this article. Permit yourself not to be perfect. No one is. Remember to keep taking slow, deep breaths --you and your children will get through this difficult time. 

1. Schedule a time when you can speak with your children together and preferably in person.

Siblings need the support system that they can provide each other. When you schedule the time to talk, tell them that you have something important to discuss with them and assure them that no one is sick or dying. If they ask you what you want to talk about, tell them that you prefer to discuss it in person when you are all together. If it isn’t possible to speak in person due to residing long distances apart, then schedule a time to speak via Zoom, Face Time, or another video platform. Avoid telling them via telephone or email. It is too impersonal. Divorce is a major life crisis for all family members. Children who were adults when their parents divorced consistently report that the news of their parents’ divorce “rocked the very foundation” of their world! 

2. Plan your presentation to your children in advance.

Make some notes about what you plan to say and review them to be familiar with what you intend to say. Anticipate what they may tell you. You can have the notes in front of you if you wish and say, “We have made some notes because what we are going to be talking about is very important for all of us, and we don’t want to forget anything.” Remember that your children will likely be in emotional shock after you tell them your intentions to end your marriage, and they will not be able to absorb everything you say this first time. Be prepared to have the same conversation with them numerous times. Their shock and grieving will interfere with them being able to take in all you are sharing. 

3. Tell them that the two of you have decided to end your marriage because you have problems between you that you haven’t been able to resolve.

Avoid using the word “divorce” because it is laden with negative connotations. 

4. Avoid blaming each other.

Now is the time for the two of you to have a united front with your children. Remember that this news will shatter their view of their family as they have known it. Blaming each other puts them in the middle of your pain and conflict, causes them to experience divided loyalty, feel that they need to choose sides, and feel guilt for loving both of you. Children who were adults when their parents divorced report that they hated being put in this position and thought that each parent was attempting to form an alliance with them against the other parent. 

5. Next, tell them what is going to remain the same.

Tell them that you are all still family, you will always be their parents, and you intend to be amicable so you can both attend family gatherings and not create tension for them and their significant others. If they are still in college and have financial arrangements to support them, tell them if you will continue the support. Tell them if one of you intends to stay in the family home, etc. Assure them they will continue to have both parents’ emotional support in the newly restructured family. 

6. Next, tell them what is not going to remain the same.

Tell your children if you will be unable to continue the financial arrangements you had regarding college. Tell them if you intend to sell the family home. If you have been assisting them in paying off their college loans and won’t be able to continue doing so, tell them so. Assure them that you will do everything you can to assist them financially if you have in the past while acknowledging that there will be some economic impact as the family restructures. It’s important to be neutral and factual. Resist being a victim or martyr. It will only make them feel guilty. 

7. Remember that you are still their parents.

It is your job to put their feelings above yours and provide them with the support they need to hear and experience. Acknowledge that you realize the announcement is a shock and that their feelings (anger, sadness, grief, shock, etc.) are understandable. Focus on and be empathetic with THEIR feelings. Don’t talk about your feelings, e.g., how you haven’t been happy for years, how you deserve to be happy, etc. Just receiving such painful news, it is unlikely that they can express their happiness for you, and it is unreasonable for you to expect them to do so. Remember, their familial foundation has just been rocked, and their family history has been rewritten. They have become members of the “lost nest” generation. There will be no “family nest” to return to at the holidays. 

8. Tell them that you still believe in family and hope they will too;

this doesn’t mean that they will not have a healthy and happy relationship. Tell them that you don’t expect them to take care of you emotionally or physically, that that is your job, not theirs. Tell them that you have, or plan to have, your support system separate from them and that you want them to establish a support system for themselves. For example, Yahoo groups have a group for adult children whose parents are divorcing. 

9. Avoid telling them that you stayed together or delayed restructuring your family because of them.

It may make them feel guilty for your unhappy marriage. They will already be recalling their childhood memories and wondering: “What was real and what wasn’t real? Were you really happy on those family vacations? Has my whole life been a sham?” Divorce destabilizes the family system and inevitably shakes every family member’s perception of their past, present, and future. 

10. Refuse to “bad mouth” the other parent.

Make it clear that you respect their right to have their relationship with each parent. You can support them by making it clear to your adult children, all family members, and family friends that your adult children have every right to refuse to participate in “bashing their other parent” conversations.

 

11. Help them decide how to respond to sensitive or intrusive questions. 

Tell them that when anyone asks questions or wants to criticize you or their other parent, it’s ok for your adult children to say that they prefer not to discuss it. Or, if others ask your adult children about your divorce, they can thank them for asking, say that it is their parents’ business and it is not their place to discuss it. Another way to help is to tell your adult children that they can suggest that others ask their parents directly. If possible, have a conversation with your adult children to help them sort out their limits and what your family’s limits are about sharing private information. Reassure them that they are not obligated to offer any more information than they choose.  

 

12. Help your adult children understand and create boundaries.

Your children have the right to have their thoughts, feelings, and personal space. This includes their right to have their relationships with each parent. As a parent you can remind yourself and your adult children that both you and your divorcing spouse will always be their other parent and that their feelings about those relationships are uniquely theirs.

 

Support them in talking with family members and others about the boundary agreements they want going forward.  You and your divorcing spouse could help them by taking that message to your siblings and parents and insist that they avoid pushing or encouraging your adult children to take sides.

 

13. Assure them that this will be a process for all of you

to move through, at your own pace and in your own way. Assure them that you will always love them and always be there for them in whatever ways will be most helpful to them. You want them to know that they aren’t alone, so they don’t become isolated and depressed. Encourage them to speak with a counselor about their feelings. Tell them you have spoken with or intend to speak with a counselor because you have learned that, for all family members, the end of a marriage is a significant life stressor, second only to the death of a loved one. 

Healing can come for everyone going through this challenging life transition.

 

 

Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist, a board-certified clinical hypnotherapist, an EMDR therapist, and a former professor of Human Services at Saddleback College. Dr. Hughes has been in private practice in Laguna Hills, CA, since 1983, and is a respected expert and sought-after speaker and trainer about the effects of divorce on children. She is the co-author of the recently published Home Will Never Be the Same Again: A Guide for Adult Children of Gray Divorce. 

In 2003 she became one of the founding members of Collaborative Divorce Solutions of Orange County and is also a co-founder of and trainer for the Collaborative Divorce Education Institute in Orange County, CA, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to educate the public about peaceful options for divorce, as well as to provide the highest caliber training for collaborative divorce professionals. She frequently trains and mentors collaborative practitioners, has appeared on the Time Warner Public television series “How to Get a Divorce” and has been a presenter at California’s annual statewide conferences for collaborative professionals, where she was recently honored with the Eureka Award, which recognizes those who have made significant contributions and demonstrated an abiding dedication to establishing and sustaining Collaborative Practice in California. For a complete listing of her collaborative practice training and teaching workshops please visit www.CollaborativePractice.com, the website of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and click on the “Locate a Collaborative Professional near you” link. In addition, please visit www.DivorcePeacemaking.com. 

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