Ouch, Mom! 3 Strategies for Adult Children Coping with Divorce

By: Kat Forsythe MSW
Last Update: October 31, 2016

Miranda, 23, peeked out of her hotel room door. Her mom shoved it open from the other side and burst into the room. “You’re not even dressed! We’re leaving in 30 minutes. You’re late again!” She slammed the door and stomped down the hall. Miranda was stunned. Why is she so angry? 

Miranda’s parents are divorcing after 25 years of marriage. Now that court is on the horizon, her mom isn’t herself. She’s angry, irritable, inconsiderate, and rude. They’d always been close, but this behavior has shaken their relationship down to the roots. It’s unacceptable. Mom’s out of control.

Miranda is hurt, frustrated, and offended. It wasn’t her fault that this divorce happened. She loves her dad, too. She’s trying to find middle ground between the two of them. Doesn’t her mom get it that it’s hard on her, too?

Adult children of long-term marriages have unique challenges when parents divorce. The old divorce adage that “we waited until they were out of the house” suggests that children can cope better with their parents' split if they’re older. They’re stronger, wiser, and less vulnerable.

Not really. No one ever stops being the children of their parents. No matter what age. The hurt of divorcing parents may be seen through terrified eyes when children are young. That doesn’t diminish the hurt that adult children experience. They feel the sadness, too, but are frequently denied the right to grieve. Instead, they may become the listening ear for suffering parents. Or, like Miranda, they morph into the dog that can be kicked, and won’t bite back. It’s called transference. Miranda’s mom wants to slam the door on her dad, but she can’t. So, Miranda gets the transfer of emotion. All this is unconscious on her mom’s part. Still, it stings.

Miranda can’t change her mother’s behavior. However, she can change the way she reacts to it.

Here are three strategies for adult children coping with their parents’ divorce:

1. Change your perspective

Instead of bemoaning the agony of Mom’s anger, remind yourself that this situation is temporary. Your “normal” Mom (and Dad) will be back after the dust has settled. That may be several years, but it’s not forever. In the meantime, you have a life to live. Focus on the life you are developing. When doors slam in your face, take a deep breath and say, “It’s her divorce, not mine. I choose not to be offended.” Easy to do? No. But worth it when you’re free from the tyranny of reaction.

2. Understand that this caustic behavior is normal in family dynamics in divorce

Normal does not mean OK, or good, or happy. It means it happens frequently – and it suggests that you’re not alone in your annoyance with your mom. Thousands of other adult children have felt your chagrin.

3. Learn coping strategies

  • Compartmentalize – put the negative interactions with Mom into a virtual “cubbyhole” in your mind. Give yourself permission to stop thinking about it. Dwelling on it only increases the drama and the angst. It can stay compartmentalized until you’re ready to address it.

  • Find a safe place to do what you like to do, free of the pressures from the divorce. Cook in your kitchen? Go for a walk in your favorite park? Take a long bath? Play with your children? Walk the dog? Read at the library? Wherever it is, keep it safe and uncontaminated from divorce drama.

  • Avoid talking ad nauseam to friends about your parents’ divorce. A little goes a long way. “Processing it” should be done with a divorce specialist, not your friends.

  • Give yourself strong, supportive true messages:
  • My mom (and dad) love me and her (or his) irritating actions are not about me; they’re the result of the pressure she’s under.
  • Things will become “new normal” and better after the divorce.
  • I can handle this situation just fine.
  • I have my own life to lead, and I’m moving forward, now.
  • I don’t have to think about this right now.
  • It’s not my responsibility to make peace in the family.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Life is serious enough. Find something funny every day. Laugh at your own foibles. Re-watch your favorite comedy.

Adult children of divorce aren’t responsible for their parents' happiness. Take the burden off yourself. Your parents' divorce is not yours.

Find ways to continue with your life that makes you smile. Own your unique life, and know that your parents will evolve to a new normal, with or without you. As my mother always quoted. “This, too, shall pass.” Let’s make sure it passes with the adult child’s sanity intact.

Take care of yourself, the adult child of divorce, first.

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