Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Parents' Divorce Poses Challenges To Young Adults

November 14, 2005

A quarter of U.S. adults ages 18 to 35 have grown up in divorced families. How does it affect their lives?

Relief or harm? Children who have been exposed to high-conflict marriages, or situations where there is violence, benefit from divorce. This constitutes about one third of the parental divorces.

Despite post-divorce conflict, adult children are relieved from fear and worry once their parents have finally divorced. They are pleased that their parents are no longer caught up in a destructive marriage.

However, two thirds of the time adult children are negatively affected by their parents divorce. This is especially true for low conflict marriages.

In either case, there are plenty of negative repercussions that flow from the parents’ divorce.

- Side taking and blame within the family. Young adults don’t like the conflict between divorced parents and pressure to take sides. Having to listen to disparaging remarks about the other parent's culpability in the divorce causes young adults to withdraw from each of them.

Young adults feel obliged to be careful what they say to each parent about the other. Such information could lead to hurt feelings or trigger criticisms about the other parent.

Fathers are generally blamed for the divorce unless the mothers are viewed as inconsistent in their love or are obviously blameworthy. Daughters in particular join with their mothers in coalitions against their fathers. Both divorce and conflict between divorcing parents negatively influence the father-child relationship for both male and female children.

The departure of the father from the home is a big factor. This may result in diminished contact with him and a deterioration of the father-child relationship. This is greatly reduced however by the positive quality of the pre-divorce relationship between fathers and their children. A positive father/child relationship is important as adolescents transition to adulthood.

- Role reversal. A divorced mother's mental health problems and poor coping negatively affects the post-divorce adjustment of the children on a variety of factors. Following divorce, many of the children feel they had a responsibility to protect their mothers, to provide emotional support and stay involved at a time when they would normally be moving on with their own lives. A substantial number feel obliged to take on greater duties in caring for their siblings.

- Financial challenges. Divorce drastically affects the resources for education, health, and living expenses. Young adults feel the hardship of not having the financial support they counted on. A poor post-divorce relationship with their father may affect his willingness to help out.

When older adolescents and young adults become involved in the post -divorce conflict, either as mediators or by being forced to take sides, the "spillover" from the conflict affects the attachment bond. This often leads to a reduction in support, particularly from fathers who feel isolated and unfairly blamed.

Children of divorced couples are forced to enter into an adult world of responsibilities and worries at a young age. Over half to two thirds of adult children surveyed agreed that they felt cheated of their youth and innocence by their parents’ divorce.

- Grieving. The adult child goes through a grieving process when his or her parents divorce. This will includes periods of anger at one or both parents. He or she may feel that their family is broken and fragmented. Feelings of confusion about how to relate positively to the parents are normal.

Moreover, the parents are often vulnerable and in grief or shock. It can be hard for children to see their parents in this situation. Just when the children are in need of comfort they are less able to turn to their parents for support. The parental divorce may be perceived as making one or both parents emotionally unavailable to them.

Divorce constitutes a radical restructuring of the young adult’s universe. The young adult may be leaving home, starting advanced education, or commencing full time employment. These changes mean a loss of their former peer friendships and support network. A parental divorce is a huge stressor that comes simultaneously with the loss of existing support that would normally come from friends.

It important that adult children have a good relationship with at least one parent. This provides and important buffer against the negative impact of conflict and/or divorce.

- Family celebrations and holidays. Celebrating family and holiday traditions suddenly becomes a Pandora’s Box of competing demands, conflicts and loyalties not to mention a logistical nightmare.

- Relating to the new spouse. This new relationship will require mutual acceptance and understanding - at a time when the young adults still have need for emotional involvement and time with their parent. This can be a breeding ground for competition and conflict as the expectations of the new spouse are blended into the mix. Family decisions and allocation of resources are altered by the new spouse’s ideas, family constellation and obligations.

- Challenge to identity and values. Even if the parents aren’t in open conflict, the differences between their two lifestyles in each of their households challenge their beliefs they once took for granted. Children are confused. They face the task of having to construct their own values in the midst of this conflict. Trying to make sense of these mixed signals goes to the heart of who they are and what they really believe.

They struggle with their own marriages, substance abuse and other problems. They are less likely to practice their religious faith and to doubt the sincerity of their parents’ faith.