When Your Child Divorces

When it’s your child who’s going through divorce, you go through some of the same pain your child does, sometimes more. You may be asking yourself one or more of these questions:

What Did I Do Wrong?

You already know the answer to this one, but you probably need to hear it anyway.

You did everything wrong.

And you did nothing wrong.

One of the dirty little secrets about the way we raise our children is that almost none of us is fit to be a parent. I know I’m not. We all make terrible mistakes with our children. It’s just that those mistakes don’t usually get aired in public until we are going through divorce.

You probably did some stupid things when you were raising your children. If you didn’t, let me know. You need to be writing this instead of me.

And you probably made some stupid mistakes in your marriage to your child’s other parent. Most of us do. Maybe your marriage wasn’t the best model for your child. Most marriages aren’t. Mine isn’t.

But just because you made mistakes as a parent, and just because you have regrets about your marriage, doesn’t mean your child’s divorce is your fault. In the first place, maybe the whole idea of “fault” just doesn’t work here. And in the second place, your child is an adult. He or she is responsible for his own actions. You are not.

It’s okay to struggle with feeling guilt and shame about your child’s divorce. But after you’ve struggled with them for awhile, let’em go. Move on.

How Can I Help Emotionally?

The most important thing you can do through your child’s divorce, of course, is to provide support. And one of the most important steps you can take to provide support to your child is to take care of yourself. Understand that the news of your own child’s divorce may trigger in you an alarming barrage of guilt, shame, fear, denial, anger, and disappointment.

Know that even if your child’s spouse is abusive or immoral, you will still grieve over the end of the marriage. You may even find yourself feeling depressed over the end of a marriage that you know needed to end. That’s because you’re grieving not just for the end of the marriage, but also for the end of your dream for the marriage. It’s tough to see that dream die.

Learning that your child’s marriage is troubled may also force you to reflect on the regrets you have about your own marriage. This can be particularly painful, because it makes you feel guilty. You’re supposed to be caring for your child, and here you are thinking only about yourself. Know that it’s normal and okay for parents who are dealing with their child’s divorce to focus on themselves and their own marriages as part of the grieving process. The key is to acknowledge that you have regrets about your own marriage, deal in a straightforward way with those regrets, and then refocus on your child.

Your first emotional support can come when you react to the news of your child’s divorce. It’s difficult for most children to tell their parents about their divorce. This is true for children who have had a rocky relationship with you, and it’s also true for children who have always been close to you and compliant with you. Either way, they usually dread telling you about their divorce. They expect you to scold them, or lecture them, or say “I told you this would never work.”

What you want to do, if you haven’t already done so, is to communicate clearly and unambiguously that you love your child, that you support your child, and that you will listen to what your child is going through without trying to fix it, without giving advice, and without passing judgment.

And then you need to do that.

If you’ve already started trying to fix it, or you’ve already told your child everything you think your child needs to do, or if you’ve already told your child you knew all along this marriage would never work, don’t despair. You have not marred your child for life. You’ve simply made a mistake, and you need to deal with it.

Your child will be getting lots of advice. If your child is typical, he or she will have trouble finding someone who’s willing to just listen and love. Can you play that role? Can you be your child’s friend through this? If you can, doing so may be the finest gift you can ever give your child. If you cannot play this role, perhaps you can introduce your child to someone else who can.

How Can I Help Financially?

Divorce hurts in all kinds of ways, but one of the ways it hurts the most is in the pocketbook. Divorce costs money. Sometimes lots of money.

Does your child need financial help during divorce? Very likely.

Can you help your child financially during divorce? Perhaps.

Should you? That’s up to you.

It comes down to how easy it is to help, whether your child is able to use help prudently, and whether you want to encourage the fight to continue. And let’s be honest, it also often comes down to your level of confidence about whether the money you give will just go to your child’s spouse in the form of a more generous settlement.

If you’re concerned about this last issue, and if you can’t bring yourself to help financially for fear you’ll just help the spouse, you might say to your child, “I won’t help you during your divorce. But when your divorce is final and you have a firm budget, come see me. I might be able to help with some of your start-up expenses after divorce.”

How Do I Deal with My Child’s Spouse?

Your strategy here will run the gamut. Your relationship with your child’s spouse will depend on the level of trust you have in your child’s spouse, your ability to communicate on more than one level, whether you have grandchildren, and the openness of the spouse to maintaining a relationship with you.

Sue was confiding in me about her son’s second divorce. The first divorce was stormy, protracted, and expensive, but the second was going more smoothly. “I get along really well with my ex-daughters-in-law,” she said painfully. Sue struggled to maintain good relationships with her son’s former wives, because she understood how her son had contributed to difficulties with the marriages, she wanted to keep a good relationship with her grandchildren, and she genuinely liked both women.

Sue’s struggle, of course is to maintain good relationships without communicating a lack of support for her son. He needs to know — and your child needs to know — that his parent supports him simply, totally, and unambiguously.

Some parents have just the opposite kind of reaction to their child’s spouse. They see the child’s spouse as the personification of evil, they believe him or her to have an almost satanic grip on their child’s psyche, and every contact with the child’s spouse sets up an agonizing cycle of revulsion, fear, and even nausea. If you’re in this category, back off. Just avoid contact with your child’s spouse until time allows the healing to begin.

If it’s been more than three years and there’s no healing, let me know. We need to talk about getting some outside help for you.

What if My Child Moves Back Home?

If you’re like most parents of children going through divorce, you’ve already either experienced this or begun thinking about the possibility. It raises a host of new issues:

  • Will your child help with expenses?
  • Will your child help with chores?
  • Who has free access to what rooms?
  • Are there rooms where you maintain privacy?
  • Are there rooms where your child can maintain privacy?
  • If your child has a child, what are your responsibilities about the child?
  • If your child has a child, who is authorized to discipline the child? Under what circumstances? How?
  • How long will this arrangement last?
  • Is there a designated date when both of you will reevaluate the arrangement and decide if it should continue?
  • Will your child check in with you, and will you know where your child is going to be? Or will your child come and go freely without any providing any information to you?
  • How do you communicate with each other?
  • Do you take messages for each other? How?
  • Are there any restrictions on the company your spouse can invite over, or is that none of your business?
  • Any restrictions about activities in your home, such as alcohol, drugs, or sex?
  • Any limitations on activities that generate noise, or traffic, or odors?
  • Are there any restrictions on your activities? What restrictions?
  • What happens if your child or one of your grandchildren damages property in your home? Will your child pay for the damage? How?

If one of you realizes that it’s a mistake for your your child to continue living with you, do both you and your child feel comfortable saying so? Do you have a contingency plan — another place for your spouse to live?

I don’t have a fixed agenda about how you and your child should answer these questions, but I have a strong preference for your addressing them as soon as your child begins talking about moving in with you. Perhaps a good way to get the conversation going would be to print this page and give your child a copy, so both of you can begin thinking about the issues you need to resolve.

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