I always laugh when I write the term “adult children”. So what are they? Adults or children? I am guessing that they are both and that we also are adult children to our parents if they are still with us. I think that some adults I know act very much like children, and a few children are very mature and act like adults. But I gather it means your children are adults now at least in age. One way or the other adult children are precious to their biological parents.
Perhaps to be clear and for the purpose of this blog, I am really referring to adult children who might be approaching middle age.
Lets not talk about adult stepchildren for a minute. Let’s talk about those adult children who haven’t lived through a divorce, or the death of a parent and the remarriage of the surviving parent. We know that adult children are very different depending on many factors. One of these factors might be where they are in their own development or life cycle. Some children mature faster than others. They are also affected differently by how they were brought up ie: how loving, attentive and healthy their parents were and if they had the necessities in life, such as; did they have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, supervision by an adult, a chance to be educated properly?
By the late thirties, adult children will have seen a bit of life. Most adult children will have had financial problems, maybe disagreements with their parents or resentment of the past in some way. They may have been angry at one time or the other with the way their family members or parents behaved. Growing up isn’t easy. We know that life isn’t easy or fair.
Just the same, most adult children deal with their issues and become independent, healthy adults, no matter what type of family they grew up in. They try to have good careers, maybe children of their own and usually have very busy, productive lives. And that is the normal order of things!
There are usually two distinct situations that give rise to adult children having to face a new reality with their parents. One is separation and the other is death of a parent.
First: Parents separating when their children are adults.
When parents separate later in life, it can still disrupt the world for adult children. Often these children end up taking care of the parent who is on his/her own. They often resent the parent who disrupted their lives and causes so much change and pain for the other parent. It worried them, stresses them, and they grieve for the family unit they were raised in. Many of my adult clients whose parents have separated would say things like, “I don’t have time for this! How can he/she be so selfish? Now I have to worry about my parents too!”
Adult children often are really surprised when their parents separate, even when they know their parents have not been happy together for a long time. It seems these children are used to their family of origin being a certain way. It is not unusual for the children to be angry, very sad or both. Adult children still have to grieve the loss of the family unit, whether it was happy or not.
7 Suggestions and comments for parents of adult children after a separation and divorce:
1. Try to talk to your adult child and tell them your reasons for separating now. Encourage your ex-partner to do that as well. Tell them the truth. Give them time to get used to the idea. Don’t pressure them. Sometimes it is months or years before they adjust to your separation. Be patient and keep your door open.
2. It is hard to see a parent sad and unable to manage. Usually adult children love both parents and so often they try to help. Sometimes they will try to avoid the whole situation and other times they might try to fix your marriage. Be sure to keep your boundaries so you don’t allow them to get involved in your separation.
3. Find your own therapist and don’t lean on your children for all your emotional support. It is too heavy a load to take care of your parents. Children usually hate the role reversal and may want you to be there for them instead. Adult children may be used to having your support, and can still be needy in many ways.
4. It isn’t a good idea to bring a new partner into their lives right away. Perhaps that is an understatement if that partner was involved in any way during the break up. This in part is because the adult child often has trouble assimilating this new person in their life. They certainly will not see them as a parent, but they may also resist even seeing them as a person who might be influential in their life. It could be really hard on everyone, especially the new partner, if you introduce them right away. See your children on your own for a while first. It is difficult to know how children will react to that new person, even years later. There are always loyalty issues involved, even when your children are older.
Remember though, if you do include this new partner, it is up to you as the parent to make sure this new partner is treated with respect and not bullied by his/her children. Unfortunately, this does happen.
With less pressure and reasonable expectations you may find that your children and new partner will find their own comfort level.
5. It might be best, in most situations, to see your children without your ex-spouse, unless of course the separation and divorce was mutually agreed upon and friendly. Feelings could run high and lead to arguments and could spoil the occasion.
6. Try to help adult children with their own worries. You are still the parent figure. Adult life issues can get in the way of how they feel about your situation. For example, they may be going through a change in career, a rocky marriage of their own, illness, or problems with their own children. Continue to help your children whenever you can such as: baby- sitting for them, dropping off dinner, paying for a cleaning lady, asking about work problems and including them in fun times whenever it is possible.
7. Most of all, don’t give up on your children no matter their age. Always keep your door open. If they are struggling now, don’t give up the hope that time will change things.
Second: One parent dies when the children are adults. Then, the surviving parent finds a new partner.
I think it is best to begin by reminding you about grief. Losing a parent is very painful. Sometimes each of the family members prefer to grieve alone and they withdraw from each other for a while. However, more often, the family members pull together and help each other with their grief. They suffer together, understand each other’s grief, have their own family memories, and in so doing form a new family bond. At first, this usually works for all of the members. But…when this goes on for a long period of time, the children are often unwilling to tolerate anyone else joining this newly created family unit.
At first, it is easiest for the parent to stay in his/her comfort level and cocoon in the house and just survive. The adult children will likely be there to comfort the parent. Eventually however, the adult children have their own families to take care of as well as the grieving parent. The grieving parent can become very lonely at times and usually will begin to look for another companion. It is harder to move on though and find someone to share your life with if the adult children put up a lot of resistance. Put it this way, rarely are they standing on the sidelines cheering if a new person joins their family of origin. The parent can then be pulled in different directions i.e. support the new partner they love or agree with the children they love. It is not unusual for adult children to manipulate to get what they want. It is natural not to want anything to change again. Plus, the children often like having their parent all to themselves. In fairness to them though, this new person can trigger their grief and the loss of the parent who has died. I have found that adult children rarely think the new person is good enough for their parent. Here are some examples of comments I have heard in my counseling practice:
“Another mother or father figure! No way! I am too old for that!” “If another person steals my last remaining parent, the family will be lost.” “ The terrible new partner just wants my parent’s money.”
7 suggestions and comments for parents dealing with adult children after the loss of their parent:
Some of my suggestions are similar to the ones for separating families. That is because in both cases there is still grief involved.
Most importantly, give yourself time to grieve. You want to be stable, capable, and grounded before you except someone else into your life and thus into your children’s lives. Be sure to listen carefully to your children’s feelings. Usually adult children are trying to protect you, and keep you company in your grief especially in the early days. When the time comes, encourage your children to go to counseling with you if they aren’t ready for you to move forward with another partner.
Try not to stop doing some of those important rituals you have been doing with your adult children. If you usually went to dinner with them on Wednesday night, continue to do that without your new partner. These are special times not to miss. However, you will not want to leave your partner out of everything. Choose carefully the rituals you want to keep and include your new partner in many of them.
Speak gently to your children about how you are changing your life now. They can give you their opinion but the ultimate decision is yours and your new partners. No one likes surprises though, especially adult children. So, for example, if you are going to sell the house, let them know ahead of time.
As I suggested in my book, discuss your will with them because you may have changed it to include your new partner. Adult children worry that they will not receive their inheritance if you marry again.
Ask them what of their mother’s/father’s things they would like to have, if you can part with some of them. This is a good time to divide things up and give them some special items they can cherish now.
Remember that your new partner is the one to help you make decisions. Not your adult children. Talk to your partner about the problems that arise. You however, know your children best. Listen to your heart and make good compromises.
In rare cases, adult children bully and try to control their parent or the new partner to get what they want. Stand tall, be assertive and speak up. Protect everyone from bullies.
It can take some time for an adult child to except a new partner in your life. If you have decided that your new relationship makes you happy, don’t let their feelings stop you. Though in most cases, when your adult children see you happy with your new partner, they will likely begin to accept him/her. It is your life to live the best you can.
I just want to add, that it is important to remember and talk about the deceased mom/dad. All children, no matter their age, are terrified that they will forget their parent that died. Make time to remember and understand when your children want to talk about their mom or dad.
It would be very helpful if your new partner understood this also, and didn’t feel threatened when their deceased parent is discussed. This is providing, of course, that it doesn’t happen constantly.
Communication is key to staying in touch with your adult children. Here are some suggestions. Give them a try.
Text or email them regularly even if you don’t get a response,
Send articles you find interesting in the mail,
Mail a card,
Drop off treats,
Do little thoughtful things, like send a book you just read,
Offer to babysit and help by enjoying your grandchildren,
Plan outings and dinners together,
Make suggestions for a vacation and help them pay,
Always listen to their opinions even if you don’t agree,
Include them in your life whenever possible.
Remember one of the few constants in life is change. Change is often not accepted easily but with patience and time, the change becomes the new normal.
“How will I ever deal with my adult children now?” asked a client one day.
And my answer still is, “Be patient, compromise, keep them close by communicating with them whenever possible, and of course, merely love them, love them, love them.”