Divorcing with Adult Children

By: Deanna Conklin-Danao, Psy.D.
Last Update: November 23, 2017

The Troubles of Divorcing with Adult Children

Couples with children will often wait until their kids have left for college to divorce. The term “The Freshman Call” has become attached to this phenomenon given how commonly this occurs. During divorces where children are involved, the primary impact is usually on the young children, however divorcing with adult children can have an impact as well. Parents are often unprepared for the strong reactions they may receive from their college aged kids. Divorce can raise a number of issues for these kids:

Losing Home as a Safe Place

College is usually the first time that a child is on their own. While most kids relish the independence of college, the concept of home as a base of familiarity and stability may become more important for them. The news of a divorce can erode that feeling of home as a safe place. They may worry that they won’t have a place to go over the break or be sad about the loss of a childhood home.

Divorcing With Adult Children and Dealing with their Feelings of Guilt 

While younger kids tend to worry that they have caused a divorce, college aged kids often feel guilty that they did not do enough to save their parents’ marriage. These feelings can exist even if the child knows that the marriage was troubled.

While many college aged kids have the maturity and insight to see troubles in their parents’ marriage, one study found that college aged kids often romanticize their parents’ relationship and have the impression that they grew up in an “All-American Family”. For these kids, the news of a divorce can be a complete surprise. When kids are blindsided by the news, it can take more of a toll on them.

Hearing that their parents are getting divorced may cause college aged kids to become cynical about their own relationships, especially romantic relationships. They think, “If I thought my parents were fine, what else don’t I know?” Armed with knowledge about common reactions, there are steps you can take to ease this transition for your kids.

Plan the Conversation When Divorcing with Adult Children

Don’t call your child at college and don’t tell them over the holidays. If possible, find a break when they will be home and you can all sit down and have the conversation. Recognize that this will be upsetting. It’s important to focus on your child—not the reasons why you are getting a divorce. “We have decided to get divorced. We realized we have been fighting a lot and can no longer live together. We understand that even though you no longer live at home, this will affect you and you will have lots of questions and feelings that we can talk about.”

Consider using Collaborative Divorce or Mediation to have a divorce process that supports putting the needs of your kids first, while addressing your child’s immediate concerns over areas that impact them such as college tuition, directly and honestly. Even though your child may be over 18 and no longer of concern to the court system, you and your spouse can create a plan that works for this phase of life so that their needs continue to be met.

Even though your child is of adult age, they need to be kept out of the middle of your divorce. Confide in your friends or see a therapist so that your child doesn’t get caught in the middle. While they are old enough to understand more adult issues, you are still their parents and they do not need to know about affairs or specific fights.

Maintain Relationships with Both Parents

This is still really important, although it will no longer be court-ordered in a parenting time schedule like it is for young kids. Encourage your child to spend time with your ex-spouse and don’t say negative things about them. Also remember that this is a time for bonding with peers, so be respectful if they want to spend some of their time at home or over break with friends instead of running back and forth between two houses.

Remember that your college aged child is adjusting to a lot at this stage of life, including living on their own for the first time.  Being thoughtful about the announcement and process of divorce will ease the transition for your child and allow them to focus on creating their own life instead of taking care of yours.

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