It’s hard to underestimate just how much turbulence is caused by a nasty divorce or custody battle. The couple going through it, their kids, their friends, their family – everyone circling the orbit of the conflict ends up being touched by it. In some cases, this means sides are picked; lines drawn in the sand and support offered or taken away. In others, it may mean withdrawal and battening down the hatches until the storm blows through – especially common for friends and acquaintances who may fear that the divorce is contagious and it will infect their own relationships. When it comes to the parents of the divorcing couple, it often means that they are dragged along right behind their children and have little power and influence to make a difference.
In limited cases when children are involved, there may be the opportunity to explore a complaint to establish “Grandparent’s Rights,” but that is a tall mountain to climb and requires the strong hand of a legal team to get you through it. When children are not involved, more often than not the method forward is more “grin and bear it” than “take charge and make things happen.”
Response is Everything
The news of a divorce can often come as a shock. Like anyone else, adult children can be well versed in putting up the façade of “Everything is fine.” This is what makes divorces hard to begin with – an overwhelming majority of what causes the distress occurs in the privacy of the home where no one is there to see. Adult children may still feel pressure of disappointment from their parents and not confide in the fracturing of the relationship, often leading to a response of shock that any of this happened at all.
Learning the news, even if for the first time where no suspicions were had, is where the adult child will make their impression of their support system. While shock is a common first reaction, it’s important that the parents recognize that this is something happening to their child directly, and not them. Despite any other feelings that may be popping up, it is critical that the parent does not turn the attention to themselves – especially of their child chose not to come to their parent’s first and opted for the support of their friends.
From here, things can get tricky. There are two sides to every story, and a divorce or custody fight is no different. A possibility exists that your child is actually the “bad guy” in the relationship and has driven things to this point. Much more likely, is that there is no good or bad in the issues at hand; there is no villain to direct the ire and discontent. Instead, there are multiple layers that have slowly been laid over time and carry the marks of both parties in the divorce or custody dispute.
Parents need to tread carefully for that. With that in mind, here are some pointers:
- Be Switzerland – stay neutral in commentary. It may be perfectly accurate to call your child’s spouse a “lazy, good for nothing so-and-so,” but this can end up backfiring. Reconciliation between parties can and does happen. Where children are involved, a relationship is going to carry on for a very, very long time as they attempt to co-parent and navigate a world in which they have a less conventional family structure. In these cases, your words and actions can come back to haunt you.
The best course of action here is to act civilly and try to stay above the fray. Not only will this keep you from being dragged in the mud, but it will also work to the favor of your child because…
- You need to show your child support. Even if you don’t agree with your child’s behavior (assuming it’s not something truly egregious), your best role will be that of stability and strength where they may not have any. By staying above the fray and avoiding any engagement in petty fights, your child and potential grandchildren have a place to retreat for a moment. Being the calm place in the storm leads to the last point:
- Be prepared for emotional regression in your child. They may come running to you and express higher than typical levels of physical and emotional need. They may also go back to the teenage years and be moody and filled with angst. This is normal. There’s so much going on, your child may be having difficulty coping. They also have a right to go through their own stages of grief, of which, anger is one. Don’t take things personally at this point. If your child does or says something hurtful, the best thing you can do is be clear and articulate your feelings with them and remain non-judgmental.
It can’t be stressed enough that support and civility are needed, but it needs to be tempered. A common means of support that parents may offer their child is that of financial assistance. It’s no secret that legal challenges can get expensive when there is significant conflict. Over extending finances to assist a child can endanger future financial independence of the parent playing financier, or, create resentment from other children who are forced to sacrifice for it. Draining a fund set aside for one child to pay bills and fees for another can just lead to more conflict down the road. Be diplomatic and even handed in your support during the divorce or custody battle.
It can be easy to absorb too much of the burden, such that a dynamic emerges where the parent is still financially and emotionally supporting their adult child when the dust has settled. Parents who should be preparing for retirement end up behind with a child that has redeveloped dependency instead of regaining independence.
When Interests Collide
Besides the emotions and stress of the dispute itself, it is not uncommon that parents have direct interests in parts of their child’s marital estate, or that child has interest in something that the parent owns in a way that has to be considered during the divorce process. We already mentioned the prospect of rights for grandparents, but further than that, there are business ties, inheritances, debt obligations, assets and trusts. Especially where you had plans to leave something of value to your child, you need to consult with a lawyer to discuss how that will impact the separation agreement. Even providing a gift to pay for fees can create problems when it come to dissolving the marital estate and should be discussed prior to any exchange.
Getting Through It Together
There is nothing easy about watching a child struggle and suffer through a challenging time. The urge to step in and protect them can be overwhelming, but it can also create more problems than good. It will be extremely important to ensure that, while you offer love and support, healthy boundaries as set as you continue wearing the hat of role model. Encouraging civility and an eye to the future will help weather the storm. Your most important job, as the parent, is to make sure that they can realize their perceived failures are not final. There is a life ahead that will be worth living, should they be willing to work for it.