Family and Consumer Sciences, 1787 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210
Adult Children of Divorce
Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Portage County
The divorce of one’s parents is generally one of the The stressors may, for a time, have a negative impact on the
most painful events in life. Researchers have found
quality of the parent-child relationship (Shapiro, 2003).
that children experience many fairly predictable stages as
The adult child can reasonably expect to go through a
they learn to accept the finality of the divorce and begin
grieving process when his or her parents divorce, even if
to build sometimes changed relationships with each of the
he or she is well aware of a history of discord in their mar-
parents. Most of the current studies concerning the effects
riage. This will probably include periods of anger at one
of divorce discuss younger children and their responses to
or both parents. There may be a strong feeling that their
this stressful family situation.
family is irretrievably fragmented. Feelings of confusion
However, some research has explored the impact pa-
concerning how to relate positively to the parents are nor-
rental divorce has on adult children. The results indicate
mal. Adult children will likely question how holidays and
that the disruption through divorce of the parent/child
other family traditions can ever be meaningful again.
relationship as late as early adulthood may still produce
However, there is good news. A longitudinal study by
some negative effects. Perhaps not surprisingly, older ado-
Hetherington and Kelly (2002) found that although the
lescents and adult children experience much of the same
first years after a parental divorce are painful and often
trauma as younger children of divorcing parents. Young
confusing, most of the adult children do negotiate the
adult children sometimes revert emotionally to a young-
changes successfully. They do this through a variety of
er stage when they have to face the changes in the family
different paths, and although some lead to unhappiness,
structure. They are in the process of exploring their own
most lead to happy satisfying lives.
independence, and are still leaning on the foundation of
family stability. They often struggle to find ways to accept
Tips for Coping
the changes in their family relationships (Hines, 1997).
• The young adult should firmly, but lovingly, refuse to
Obviously, arrangements concerning custody, child
be drawn into the middle of the conflict. There may be
support, and visitation are no longer issues, but parent/
pressure to choose sides, but he or she needs to remain
child contact and emotional support are often greatly af-
as loving as possible with both parents. If one parent
fected. Traditionally, young adults are still dependent on
seems to be more “at fault” or “to blame” than the other,
their parents to assist them in making the transition to in-
the adult child will likely be angry at that parent. How-
dependence. They have the expectation that their parents
ever, that issue should be resolved between the parent
will always be the “same,” and when one or both parents
and the child with professional assistance, if needed.
follows new directions in their new lives, their child often
experiences a powerful sense of loss. Accepting change is
• The parents have to work out their own divorce and
frequently difficult for anyone, but because the adult child
financial agreements. This is not an appropriate role for
is in a period of major transition in his or her own life, it
is even more difficult for him or her to readily accept the
• The adult child may need to seek out a support group to
changes that the parent(s) are, of necessity, experiencing.
allow a “safe” place to let out feelings and to share with
Copyright © 2007, The Ohio State University
Adult Children of Divorce—page 2
others who are experiencing similar concerns. It may
• Spend positive time together in the new family group-
also be helpful to get professional help for a time to help
ings. Find fun things to do to help deal with stress and to
work through some of the changes and stresses.
begin rebuilding. Find things to laugh about together.
• The grieving process is normal! A parental divorce cre-
Accepting parental divorce when one is just beginning
ates a situation of painful loss for the young adult. There
to get used to his or her own new independence can be
will be times to cry, times to yell, and times to feel sad.
very stressful. It helps to remember that life will get back
to normal in time, even if normal looks different from
• Take one day at a time. Determine your own priorities
what was expected. The newly arranged family can still
and work toward fulfilling them. A focus on your future
be strong, loving, and supportive of its members. Life, al-
can help you cope.
though changed in perhaps unexpected ways, can still be
positive with continued strong family relationships.
• Although it’s often difficult, it’s important to try to
forgive parental weaknesses and faults. Everyone heals
easier and sooner with a little understanding and rea-
sonable expectations. Holding on to anger only slows
Amato, P. R., & Cheadle, J. (2005). The long reach of di-
the healing and keeps one from moving forward to a
vorce: Divorce and child well-being across three genera-
more positive new life.
tions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 191–206.
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for
• Family rituals are still important. However, some of
worse. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
them may need to be adjusted to meet the changed fam-
Hines, A. M. (1997). Divorce related transitions, adoles-
ily situation. Be flexible.
cent development, and the role of the parent child rela-
• Create new traditions and family activities. This helps
tionship: A review of the literature. Journal of Marriage
the healing process and strengthens the family mem-
and the Family, 59, 375–388.
bers. As young adults begin to create their own families,
Shapiro, A. (2003). Later-life divorce and parent-adult
they can build their own traditions and incorporate the
child contact and proximity. Journal of Family Issues,
favorites from their own childhood.
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Copyright © 2007, The Ohio State University