How Does Divorce Affect College Age Kids?

More than 1 in 4 people in the US who get divorced are over the age of 50, and more than half of them were married 20+ years. As a result, a significant number of these couples have college-age kids. But how does divorce affect college age kids? 

College kids may experience feelings of guilt or alienation when their parents’ divorce. It may also become difficult for them to focus on their studies and social lives. This is because they are still maturing and our brains don’t stop developing until age 25.

So, many still experience significant negative repercussions.

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So, contrary to popular opinion, college-age kids feel as traumatized by their parent’s divorce as younger kids do.

In this article, I will explain the emotions college kids experience as they try to come to terms with what’s happening in their families. I’ll also provide you with tips on how to break the news of divorce to the kids gently, compassionately, and respectfully. 

Understanding How College Kids Deal With Parents’ Divorce

College-age kids may have left their nests, but most are still dependent on their parents for emotional and financial support. As they try to adjust to a new world outside their homes, learn to become independent, and study to build a career, they look to their parents for guidance and support. 

The news of parental divorce can shatter them emotionally and leave scars that take a long time to heal. Read on to find out what college kids go through when their parents divorce.  

Kids Can Blame Themselves for the Divorce

College-aged kids tend to blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. They feel guilty that they didn’t recognize the red flags and prevent the divorce. 

The kids agonize over their perceived shortcomings and failure to keep their parents together. 

These negative feelings can remain in their psyche as subtle undercurrents that direct their behaviors, responses, decisions, and relationships. 

Feelings of guilt are powerful. They can dent a person’s confidence in oneself and prevent them from forming healthy, meaningful relationships. 

Home Loses Its Status as a Safe Place

After being on their own and navigating the uncertainties and instabilities of a new world, many college kids value their homes as a “safe place” to return to during school breaks. However, parental divorce and the resulting change in living arrangements can upset them.

After a divorce, some kids can no longer live in their childhood homes during the breaks. Some have to split their time between living in their childhood homes and the home of the other parent. These kids may have to live with a constant fear of losing their childhood home if their parents decide to sell it.

Not having a “safe haven” feels like an emotional loss for college kids. Without a place where they can feel a sense of belonging, they can feel achingly lonely. 

Kids May Distance Themselves From One or Both Parents

Bitter and heated arguments between the parents that may precede a messy divorce are upsetting for everybody involved. However, a college-age kid might be deeply unsettled by the negative emotions swirling around them.

The kid may not have witnessed their parents’ bitter and violent sides before. They may become fearful of one or both parents.

The blame and accusations—which may or may not be true—that the parents hurl towards one another can erode the kids’ faith and trust in their parents.

Mistrust, fear, anger, or resentment can compel the kids to distance themselves from both parents. 

Daughters Commonly Distance From Their Divorced Fathers

Researchers from the University of Colorado studied the effects of parental divorce on college-age kids and published their findings in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage

According to the findings, college-age women from non-intact homes reported greater emotional detachment from their fathers than their peers from intact homes.

They separated themselves psychologically, functionally, and attitudinally from their fathers much more quickly than what’s the norm in father-daughter relationships.  

What’s even more disturbing is that the college-age women of divorced parents reported feeling resentful towards their fathers. They found themselves blaming their fathers for the breakdown of the marriage. Some reported experiencing conflicting emotions in their relationships with their fathers. 

The powerful feelings of blame and resentment that many daughters feel towards their fathers can cause rifts in their relationships. 

Kids Can Have Difficulties Forming New Relationships

Most parents who divorce when their kids are in college have considered staying married to give their kids a stable family unit. In most cases, their marriage wasn’t hostile or violent. The home environment was peaceful. As a result, the kids didn’t realize how emotionally distant their parents were. 

An announcement of divorce can be shocking for these kids. If they hadn’t seen the divorce coming, the news can destabilize their whole emotional world. 

Some of these kids had considered their parents’ marriage to be examples of how relationships should be. They now start questioning their entire past and what family life means. Some begin to wonder where values like trust and integrity fit in an emotional relationship. 

Divorce Can Alter Self-Esteem and Trust

These are unsettling thoughts and emotions and, if not processed appropriately, can erode the kids’ belief in themselves and the people around them. They can also doubt their ability to form and sustain healthy emotional relationships. 

When someone has an innate mistrust of people and emotions and tends to question the other person’s motives for being in a relationship, it’s challenging for them to form new relationships.

Kids May Struggle To Accept the Parents’ New Partners

Sometimes college-age kids can find it challenging to accept mom or dad’s new partner. This may happen if the kid was emotionally close to one parent. 

The kid may be hurt or experience resentment towards the other parent who has started dating. They may be reluctant to accept mom’s or dad’s new partner, whom they regard as someone who is trying to “replace” their favorite parent. 

Of course, not all kids have difficulties accepting their parent’s new partner. Emotions are expressed differently based on the personalities involved and the prevailing circumstances. 

Students Have To Split Time With Parents During Breaks

Not all college kids welcome the idea of moving back and forth between their parents’ houses during school breaks. They may find traveling especially irritating if the parents live in different cities or states. In addition, the kid may prefer spending more time with one parent over the other. 

It may be that one parent continues to live in the house that the kid grew up in. The kid may prefer to spend more time during their breaks in their childhood home and in a familiar neighborhood among their childhood friends. 

Splitting time staying with parents who live far away from one another increases traveling time and decreases the time the kid has for enjoying their favorite activities during college breaks. This can be deeply upsetting for them.

Students May Struggle To Focus on Studies

According to the counselors at Penn State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), many college-age kids struggle academically while dealing with their parents’ divorces. The sheer number of emotions that they have to process can feel numbing. This experience often includes the following:

  • Feelings of guilt and anger. 
  • Feeling resentful towards one or more parents. 
  • Trying to cope with the loss of security that comes with losing one’s childhood home. 
  • Not feeling emotionally or financially supported.
  • Trying to adjust to altered living arrangements and disruptions in familiar and comforting routines.

After a divorce, the kids are trying to get their bearings in an unfamiliar external world.

CAPS counselors say that the volume of emotions that college kids have to process after their parents announce their divorce makes it difficult to concentrate on their studies. Students worry about their family’s situation and lose sleep over what awaits them in the future.

As a result, their academic grades may suffer because they lack the energy and focus to study.

How Do You Tell Your College-Age Kids You Are Divorcing?

Many parents who wait for their kids to grow up and leave home before divorcing assume that the announcement won’t be traumatic for their kids. This is a dangerous misconception. 

Just because your kid has reached college doesn’t mean that they’re emotionally mature enough to handle the news without experiencing emotional trauma. The news of parental divorce can be as devastating to a college kid as it is to a younger child. 

Because they’re trying to adjust to a new life and its many uncertainties, news of their parents divorcing can be quite upsetting to college kids. 

You should tell your college kids that you’re divorcing after preparing and rehearsing a script. You must break the news face-to-face and ensure that both of you are present during the conversation. Don’t evade answering the hard questions that the kids will ask. 

You must break the news of your divorce to your kids with honesty while respecting their emotions and reactions. Read on to find out how you should tell your college-age kids that you are divorcing.

Prepare a Script and Rehearse Your Responses

Preparing a script and sticking to it is essential in the circumstance for the following reasons:

  • A script keeps you focused and on track.
  • You can decide the words you want to say and the language you wish to use, especially when talking about difficult topics like a parent’s affair or substance abuse issues. 
  • A script helps diffuse the situation and prevents you from creating a hostile environment.
  • While writing a script, you can prepare the answers to any uncomfortable questions that may arise. 
  • Scripts ensure you don’t forget to address issues like living and financial arrangements.

It is vital that you rehearse the script before addressing your children. 

If possible, rehearse the script with your partner so that your statements don’t sound contradictory. Rehearsing the script in front of another person also ensures that they can warn you if your body language and gestures come off as being too accusatory or indifferent. 

Break the News in Person

Don’t FaceTime to break the news of your divorce to your kid. Don’t Skype.

If possible, tell siblings together. A face-to-face conversation lets you observe your kids and gauge how they take in the news and process their emotions. 

Most importantly, having this conversation face-to-face lets you be together as a family and sends out the message to your kids that you’re there to support them as they begin a new life.

Do Not Play the Blame Game

Assigning blame to anyone involved makes it more difficult for your kids to deal with an already confusing and emotionally disturbing situation. 

You must ensure that your kid continues to have a healthy and emotionally fulfilling relationship with both you and your partner. When you assign blame, you risk alienating your kid from one or both of you. They may be compelled to take sides, which is a painful situation for any kid.

Be respectful to one another when discussing your divorce with your kids.

Address Hot-Button Questions With Subtlety and Prudence

Don’t evade discussions on hot-button issues like a parent’s affair or substance abuse problems. Your kids have a right to understand the entire situation.

Still, there’s no need to tell them all the details. Although psychologists and family counselors don’t seem to agree on how much to say to your kids, it’s wise not to share information that paints one parent in a negative light.

For instance, you can answer a question like, “Did Mom cheat?” by saying that you have your differences and can’t work through your disagreements. That’s why you’re breaking up.

Explain How the Divorce Will Affect the Kids

The news of parental divorce is emotionally upsetting for many. However, college-age kids are also concerned about how their own lives will pan out after the divorce. Some of them may be worried about where they’ll live and whether their parents will support them financially if needed.

You must answer important questions like:

  • Where will the kids live after the divorce? 
  • Who will they live with when they come home during school breaks?
  • Who will support the kids financially while they’re in college?
  • Will both of you get together to celebrate family traditions or go on a holiday?

These answers will assure your kids that they won’t be left alone to fend for themselves. 

Final Thoughts

Sometimes it’s in the best interest of married partners to divorce. However, they should also remember that they’re responsible for helping their college-age kids deal with the changing family situation in an emotionally healthy way.

It’s essential to know the gamut of emotions college-age kids go through when they learn their parents are about to divorce.

It’s up to the parents to help the kids express their feelings so that they can soothe their anxieties, allay their fears, and ease their doubts.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I am a father and blogger and recently divorced. I love spending time with my 3 daughters and am still learning how to navigate life as a single dad and ex-husband; a life I didn't choose but have accepted.

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