By Leo Terbieten MFT
Parents know that a child’s reaching the age of majority does not absolve them of their responsibility to parent. Naturally, over time the form of relationship one has with their kids will undergo a metamorphosis. The joy, pride and responsibilities of being a parent, however, will remain, to some extent, for the rest of your life. Your kids will always see you as their parent. Yet divorced parents may, understandably but mistakenly, hope that their need to have interaction with their ex will cease when the child becomes an adult.
It’s absolutely true that the need to interact with the other parent decreases as the children get older and become more independent. But on both a practical and psychological level the need to remain connected to your ex may be unavoidable. There are cases, such as those that involve domestic violence or emotional abuse, where ongoing interaction is dangerous and should therefore not occur. In most cases, however, an ongoing co-parenting connection of some kind is inevitable.
Some examples of occurrences that may require co-parenting your adult children include:
- College and graduate school choices, expenses and graduation ceremonies
- Medical benefits or other financial issues
Not only must you negotiate and interact from time to time with the other parent to deal with these types of life events but you must do so without the benefit of a court order defining the parameters of each parent’s role. Even if you refuse to have any contact with the other parent, as may be the case in parallel parenting arrangements, their actions may still impact your life.
In addition to the practical issues that arise your adult children are affected on a psychological level by how you relate to their other parent. Remember that your adult children love both of you regardless of the level of animosity you have for each other. They are still put in the middle when the two of you don’t agree on how to support them. They still run the risk of hurting one parent by spending a holiday with the other. As adults they must learn to manage special events such as graduations, weddings and births in such a way as to prevent, otherwise joyous occasions, from devolving into a parental hate fest.
One of the major difficulties that arises in co-parenting, in general, is the lack of communication between the parents and the mistrust that arises from it. It’s often the case that a parent misperceives something the other parent does as threatening or insulting. These imagined personal slights can fester and further alienate the parents. This dynamic does not change when the kids turn eighteen. Nor does your kids’ need for their parents to treat each other with respect.
Your feelings toward the other parent may be understandable. It’s also the case that standing up for yourself is important for your own boundaries as well as setting a good example for the kids. Critical thinking is necessary, however, in order to protect your kids from the pain and embarrassment of their parents squabbling over every little perceived insult. Equally important is that you protect your relationship with your adult children from being damaged by contributing to contentious relations with their other parent.
As I point out in my latest book, “Change Your Mind. Co-Parenting in High Conflict Custody Cases”, when you learn to change the way you respond to anxiety and threat, you keep yourself and your children safe. Your initial emotional reactions to the other parent’s provocative or concerning behaviors can cause you to be perceived as the problem.
With the passage of time the parents will emotionally detach from each other and move on with their lives. Their lives will be profoundly different from when their kids were young. Adult children, however, are still impacted practically and emotionally by their parents’ relationship. It can be helpful to remember that the effective co-parenting skills and lessons you learn when your kids are young will be crucial to your relationship with them as adults.