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The Roles Adult Children Play

When the media focuses on divorce the spotlight usually turns to young children and custody issues.  The Gore  announcement shifted attention to adult children. Older siblings get drawn into the divorce process itself,  called upon to provide  emotional support and advice, usually to the aggrieved parent. 

Adult children are often taken by surprise when parents announce a divorce, and may suddenly feel cast adrift. Was their childhood just a mirage of a happy marriage?  They fear losing the family home, the gathering spot for holidays and celebrations, even if they no longer live there. They worry about financial support for college or graduate school, a home down payment, or other needs.  They feel betrayed by a parent who had an affair, and wonder if any inheritance will now pass to a stepparent and perhaps new step-siblings. They are concerned that they might have to assume responsibility for an ailing parent, now alone.

For a explanation of the various roles adult children assume during a divorce,  mothering 21 talked with Janice L. Green, author of  “Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges.”  A family lawyer in practice for more than 30 years in Austin, Texas, Ms. Green has advised many clients whose adult children became involved in the divorce process.Visitation, support, and custody are not on the table, but the adult child is often playing a role at the table or behind the scenes,” she wrote in blog post about adult children and divorce.   Ms. Green categorized the different roles:

  • A chief confidant
  • A fixer
  • A mediator
  • A guide or interpreter
  • An absent one

Obviously these roles are not limited to divorce situations.   Many mostly happily married baby boomers will recognize their adult children playing these parts in their own family dynamic. We chatted with Ms. Green last week about  the different roles. 

If the wife is taken by surprise in a divorce she will often turn to a daughter for support?

Yes, especially if mom doesn’t have close friends, it’s important to have an emotional pole to lean on, and sometimes daughters can provide that support.  The adult children often side with the mother, especially if dad decided to have a fling and dumped the family.

As much as a mother wants to trash talk about dad what’s wrong with venting to her adult children?

If you are constantly telling a child that the other parent is horrible then you’re also telling that child half of you is horrible. If there’s any chance of reconciliation, it will be difficult for them to forget what has been said during the divorce process. Why interfere in their relationship with their other parent?

The “fixer” sounds like something out of The Sopranos!  The “fixer” accompanies a parent to the lawyer.  Why does an adult child assume this responsibility?

I think in some part it’s a byproduct of economic dependency but it’s not always because the adult child is worried about an inheritance.  He or she may be truly concerned for the parent’s—usually the mother’s–financial well-being. In the last five years or so I’ve seen a lot more adult children with take-charge personalities come to a meeting to ask questions and take notes. Adult children can be invaluable in helping to keep  their parent calm and focused and on task.

You said that the mediator is like a diplomat shuttling between parents, usually more impartial than a fixer.  Does an adult child mediator ever get parents to reconcile?

While I have seen many cases where adult children worked hard to make things patched, I am not sure that ultimately had much bearing.  Reconciliation is very difficult if trust has been destroyed.  While it’s hard to generalize, often reconciliation occurs after a passage of time, and when the new boyfriend or girlfriend in the wings no longer has such a glow. 

You ask  new clients who is giving them advice, and that it’s particularly important to know if adult children are involved.


Adult children can be very influential as  shadow advisors, but may be biased or have their own agenda. Adult children are often devastated by the divorce and are playing out their own emotional scenario. I need to know to what degree they are influencing the parent and whether it is helping or distracting my client. I don’t automatically assume it’s a bad thing or negative.  Their observations or opinions about the marriage may be significant to our case.

In one of your blog posts, you note that parents can use divorce as an opportunity to teach a life lesson to their adult children.

Be an inspiration. The best gift you can give an adult child is to see both parents bounce back from one of life’s most troubling episodes. It is reassuring for a child — even a grown-up one.

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