We’ve written before about the power of rewriting your divorce narrative for yourself, but in this article we discuss how to frame the issue for your children.
Developmentally, young adult children are busy exploring their lives, their work, and their love relationships—and are quite independent and operating very much outside of the realm of their family of origin. Notwithstanding, they are often devastated by the news that their parents are getting a divorce.
This is especially true for young adult children whose parents were in quiet-yet-unhappy marriages that looked very functional on the surface. Perhaps they were very functional, but behind closed doors the parents were experiencing pain within their intimate lives which their children were never privy to.
Because they might have been unaware of any trouble in their parents’ marriage, young adults are often blindsided by the news, despite the fact that they are otherwise caught up in their own universe of new experiences. Many still count on their parents to be solidly there, like a rock or an anchor to push away from as they move forward into their own adulthood.
And it makes sense if you reflect on it: At a similar point in your own development you were probably trying just as hard to find yourself. Now imagine what you would have felt like if all of a sudden your footing was no longer there. Like swimming for the first time in deep water, it can be very disorienting and panic-inducing.
The idea of creating a narrative ahead of time—a narrative to tell the children what kind of changes are afoot for the family—is an extremely useful way to let your children know that your support will always be there for them, even if it appears to be vanishing.
The story that you craft should give your children an explanation that helps them understand what is taking place without giving them access to the private, parental adult relationship — a) because it’s not really the kids’ business, and b) it’s one less thing to worry about.
Here are some initial things to strive for while brainstorming with your spouse about the narrative you wish to convey to your children:
- Be sure to work together to determine not only what you’re going to say, but the level of detail you wish to divulge.
- Plan to share the news at a time when both parents can be present, and stay present.
- Be there to respond to the questions and address the emotional impact on the children.
- Remain present so that there is a plan for your post-divorce family.
- Stress the idea that you will all land on your feet, you are modeling and teaching resilience in the face of change — a life skill that is essential for human beings at all stages of development.
- Be careful about how much personal information about your marriage you disclose. Children do not need to be put in the awkward position of judging their parents.
- Have people available to talk to your children — like a family specialist or other mental health professional.
When it comes to young adult children (especially ones who have moved out of the family home), society tends to send a message that belittles their pain—You’ve got your own life or What’s the big deal? But if their emotional reactions are very significant, they are entitled to talk to someone with the experience and clinical knowledge to help them process all of the new information and feelings that are now part of their lives.
In the end, it might just turn out that your kids have a much greater opportunity to know each of their parents as individuals — and to take lessons from parents who can grow from the experience to live healthier and happier lives going forward.
If you think your family can benefit from the expertise of an experienced family specialist, contact us for more information.
My Divorce Recovery
Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP