Everyone understands that divorce is hard on the couple whose marriage is ending, and of course for any children they may have. Fewer people think about the impact of a divorce on the parents of the divorcing husband and wife, but watching your adult child go through a divorce has its own special challenges.
From the time our kids are born, our primary goal is their well-being. We know that they'll have to go through hard times, but we strive to keep them as safe and happy as we can. Seeing a child happily married with a family of their own is a dream of most parents. When that dream falls apart, many emotions flood in: disappointment, sadness, grief, shock, feelings of helplessness, fear for your child's future and your relationship with grandchildren. If your child was wronged by his or her spouse, you will undoubtedly be angry; if your child did something to cause the end of the marriage, you may feel shame on her or his behalf.
You may even feel guilt for having all these feelings! After all, it's your child's life that's being torn apart, not yours, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, it's good to remember that you're not the central player in this drama, and it's not all about you. On the other hand, it's a mistake to believe you should feel unaffected by it. Divorce has an impact on whole families; you are part of your child's family, and perhaps a more important one than ever. Acknowledging your very valid feelings is a necessary part of the process of helping your child.
Just as most parents want to help their children, most children (even if they don't admit it) hate to disappoint their parents. Even though nearly half of first marriages in the United States end in divorce, people going through divorce still experience it as a failure. Even if you do feel disappointment and shame over your child's divorce, expressing that right away can compound your adult child's own feeling of having failed. It's important to clearly convey that you're disappointed for your child, not in him or her. You don't want your child to shut you out when he or she needs you most.
This is admittedly tougher when your child has actually done something, like have an affair, that contributed to the end of the marriage. It's okay to let your child know you love and support her/him, while not condoning their behavior. (Most parents have plenty of practice walking that line, albeit on a smaller scale.) Even so, that talk is probably best to have sometime after your child first tells you about the divorce.
If your child was wronged by his/her spouse, as tempting as it might be to launch into a litany of why you "never liked her/him," force yourself to resist. The couple could reconcile, and even if they don't, feeding your child's bitterness about the end of his marriage could fan the flames of an acrimonious divorce.
It's a virtual certainty that your child will want your support during his or her divorce. Be sure, however, that you're on the same page about what that means. Rather than jumping in and trying to fix everything, as some parents are wont to do, pause. Ask your child what kind of support (s)he needs from you. Your child may need a shoulder to cry on, help with the children, financial help, or a variety of other things.
Understanding the role your child needs you to play can help you to express your support without being intrusive, and in a way your child will truly appreciate. Asking your child what (s)he needs also signals that you view her/him as a respected adult, not as a child who can't take care of him or herself.
Having clarity about your child's needs also gives you the opportunity to assess your ability to meet them. If, for instance, your child needs childcare help that you're not in a position to offer, be honest about it and offer to help explore options. Allowing your child to expect help that you can't reasonably give will lead to frustration on their part and guilt on yours. It may be less important that your child gets what (s)he asks for than that (s)he knows (s)he's not alone in navigating this unfamiliar territory.
Urge your child and spouse to consider uncoupling counseling and/or individual counseling with a professional to assist them through this troubling time. And finally, if divorce is inevitable, have your child contact us at Mundahl Law. We offer free half hour informational consultations on the divorce process.