Older Children and Separation

The Forgotten Children in a Family Separation

Older children are a growing and somewhat forgotten age group. Many separating parents wait until their children grow to a certain age (late-adolescence or early 20s) to make the separation a reality. They expect their ‘adult’ child to be able to accept and manage the separation. After all, these young people are rarely at home and often appear remarkably independent.

I would advise separating parents to take a few moments and make a list of all the disruptions and concerns that your child will likely have to accept or endure from your separation. Below are a few possibilities, though they don’t exhaust the reactions of this group. Recognize that the optics of the separation may play an important part in their reaction , such as who appears responsible for causing the separation and who is the ‘victim’. The concept of ‘no-fault’ divorce is unlikely to find quiet acceptance here.

A family unit that has only known being intact, even through considerable parental unhappiness, is all that the children have known. For some parents at this stage there is a defiant ‘I have been unhappy long enough by remaining in a loveless marriage, it is my time to find happiness’ position. That is not an unreasonable feeling but one also needs to be sensitive to where your children are on this parental ‘failure’. Otherwise your search for personal happiness may be cut short by guilt and loss.

Anticipating Challenges

A parental split rarely if ever goes as planned in what I would call an ‘adult’ or ‘no-fault ‘way. In addition there is the added likelihood that families with two or more mid-adolescent children may see the children live with different parents. The intact family can often become the ‘splintered family’ with many unintended outcomes that can become too long-lasting. Regaining an enduring life-long parenting relationship may have to be accomplished within limited, reduced opportunities with your child. Different perspectives among older children can cause serious rifts that can be long-lasting.

This is a reminder that every relationship is tested by the way parents separate. Unintended negative outcomes are more likely to endure when older children are no longer under the same roof because there is less together time to repair the damage and to work it through. In addition each sibling relationship within the intact family has its own history based on age, personality, parental connection, etc.

Planning to Tell the Older Children

Below is a partial list of reactions. Please compile your own list for each child and if possible bring those lists together as parents prior to a more formal separating conversation with your child. Reactions are very individual and may include many mixed reactions:

  • Older children often believe in ‘rescuing’ the ‘wronged’ parent.
  • Older children often blame one parent and see the other parent as being abandoned.
  • Older children may also decide to live their life separate from one or both parents.

When discussing the plan to separate with your older children, please consider these points:

  • Offer older children a grown-up, age-appropriate explanation that is honest without defamation.
  • Let your grown children know that they are not expected to take sides in the separation process.
  • Let your children know that the shared history you have built together as a family will not be forgotten or dismissed.
  • Find ways to manage family events and include extended family and grandparents.
  • Plan in advance how matters such as inheritance, education, and financial support will be managed so that any practical questions can be answered.