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How to Tell Your Adult Children You're Divorcing

Just because they're grown up doesn't mean the news isn't going to hurt

By Erica Manfred | May 17, 2012

In the past 20 years, the divorce rate among people over 50 has surged by more than 50 percent, even as overall divorce rates have stabilized. Few parents in this age group have any idea how to break the news to their 20- or 30-something offspring. Couples who wait until their kids are grown to split up may mistakenly assume that their children won’t be traumatized by their divorce. As a result, many don’t exercise the same kind of care and consideration as they would with younger children. But when it comes to divorce, it appears that the kids are never grown.

Adult children can be as devastated as young ones by this news, if not more so. No matter how old they are, they're still losing their family as they always knew it, and that is going to hurt. That's why the same advice applies when it comes to breaking the news to the kids: Both parents should be there. And with honesty and respect, they need to let their kids know that they love them, and that no one’s to blame.

The Right Way to Break the News

Jennifer Corcoran, a matrimonial attorney in Albany, N.Y., says of all the mistakes that older divorcing couples can make, the worst one is to break the news over the phone. Corcoran knows firsthand, having gotten such a call from her mother when she was 25 and in law school.

“If you had small children, you’d talk to them together and tell them they didn’t do anything wrong. When kids are adults, you can forget you’re still Mommy and Daddy to them and discuss adult issues with them that include all the intimate details. My mother and I are close, so I was first person she called. If she’d stepped back she may have realized she shouldn’t have done that."

No matter how much you are suffering, don’t forget that your first job is to be a parent who cares about your adult children. Corcoran emphasizes that you need to have a filter, and not throw all the gory details at your kids. Surviving your parents’ divorce, is rough for all kids, she says. “So I’ve learned to always ask my clients how their kids are doing. If they tell me that they’re adults so there’s nothing to worry about, I tell them my story and emphasize that they should check in with them and be careful how much they share.”

Nancy Fagan of the Divorce Help Clinic in San Diego recommends that both parents be present and use a script to help them stay focused. With clients, she coaches them to practice the answers they should give.

“With small children, you can ad lib, but with adult children you’re going to get hard questions, and you'd better know how to answer them,” she says. “First of all, the announcement should be face-to-face or on Skype. Make sure they can see you. Expect hard questions such as, 'Did Dad cheat?or 'Is Mom an alcoholic?' You don’t have to go into details about bad behavior, but do be prepared to tell the truth. They will want to know why you’re splitting, and they’re entitled to an answer.”

What If Dad Did Cheat?

The hottest button will be a parental affair — and on this issue, even divorce experts have conflicting advice. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and the author of The Self- Aware Parent, disagrees with Fagan. She advises people to not tell kids (child or adult) that one of their parents is having an affair. Instead, she recommends simply telling them that you’re not good at working through conflicts or disagreements together and that’s why you’re splitting up.

In the end, however, Walfish does agree that the decision over confessing a parent's infidelity has to be yours. You know your children better than anyone and should do whatever you feel is best for them, she says.  

Beyond that, Walfish has specific tips for talking to adult children:

  1. Avoid blame. Assigning blame might alienate the children from one parent or the other. It puts them in the middle, which is extremely painful for a child at any age.
  2. Tell siblings together, if possible. This way, they can use each other as a support system at that moment. 
  3. Deal with how the divorce is going to impact them. Be prepared to answer such important questions as: Who is going to pay tuition if they're in college? If they have children, how are you both going to stay involved as grandparents? How are you going to maintain family traditions? Where will you go on holidays?
  4. Be prepared to repeat what you say as they probably won’t remember the first time. It will be hard for them to absorb the information because they could be in “emotional shock.”
  5. Expect anger. They’ll need permission to be angry, and you’ll need to be prepared to absorb those emotions without getting angry yourself. The anger may focus on the timing of the divorce. If they ask why you’re splitting now, after staying together for 20 or 30 years or more, tell them you're just not happy together anymore or whatever simple truth is appropriate. What you don’t want to say is, “We stayed together for you.” That will make them feel responsible for your unhappiness.
Set Realistic Expectations

Don’t expect your children to be happy for you, even if you feel the divorce is a good thing. “For me, knowing Mom and Dad were divorcing was devastating enough, but dealing with Mom, who expected me to be happy for her for leaving Dad, was even more emotionally draining,” says Brooke Lea Foster, author of The Way They Were: Dealing With Your Parents’ Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage.

Adult children will blame themselves in the same way that small children do, says Nancy Kay, a divorce management coach based in Pataskala, Ohio. “Even if they understand that there was conflict and communication issues within the marriage, the announcement will cause them to review their childhood looking for signs that their parents were struggling and that they could have done something to prevent the divorce.”

Focus on the message you want to convey when preparing your script, she says. "A positive message, such as 'We are always there for each other, we still want you to believe in family, even though it didn’t work out for us, both our doors are open to you anytime,' will help a lot to soften the blow." 

The most important message to convey is that you take responsibility and acknowledge that this breakup is going to rock their world. Above all, be empathetic about their suffering, and don’t just focus on your own.

Erica Manfred is a freelance writer and the author of He’s History You’re Not; Surviving Divorce After 40.