While most of the concerns regarding the impact of divorce on children are focused on younger children living at home, divorce also impacts older children. College aged children often have a strong reaction to divorce that parents are unprepared to handle.

This issue is gaining increased relevance as more older couples are undergoing divorce, leading to many children receiving the dreaded “freshman call” announcing that their parents are getting a divorce.  If you and your spouse have decided to get a divorce, here are some helpful tips for helping your college aged children deal with this major life change:

If you are divorcing at this time in your child’s life, keep the following in mind:

  • Concept of home is lost – College may be the first time that your child is on their own. While most kids relish the independence of college, in many ways home becomes more important as a base of familiarity and stability. With the news of divorce the idea of home may be lost. He may worry that he won’t have a place to go over the break or be sad about the loss of his childhood home.
  • Feelings of guilt – While younger kids tend to worry that they are the cause of a divorce, college aged kids often have feeling of guilt that they could have done something to help save their parents’ marriage. These feelings can exist even if the child knows that the marriage was troubled.
  • Shock – While many college aged kids have the maturity and insight to understand may see troubles in their parents’ marriage, one study found that college aged kids often romanticized their parents relationship and felt they grew up in the “all-American family”. For these kids, the news of an impending divorce can be a complete surprise.
  • Cynicism – Another common reaction is for college aged kids to become cynical about their own relationships, especially romantic relationships.  They think, “If I thought my parents were fine, what else do I not know?”

Armed with knowledge about common reactions, there are steps you can take to ease this transition for your kids.

  • Plan the conversation – Don’t call your child at college and don’t tell them over the holidays. If possible, find a break when they will be home and you can all sit down and have the conversation.  Do not blame the other spouse and recognize that this will be upsetting.  “We have decided to get divorced.  We realized we have been fighting a lot and can no longer live together.  We understand that even though you no longer live at home, this will affect you and you will have lots of questions and feelings that we can talk about.”
  • Minimize the conflict – Consider using Collaborative Divorce or Mediation to have a divorce process that supports putting your kids’ needs first and address your child’s concerns, such as college tuition, directly and honestly.
  • Don’t confide in your child – Even though your child is of adult age, they still need to be kept out of the middle of your divorce.  Confide in your friends or see a therapist so that your child doesn’t get caught in the middle.
  • Maintain relationships with both parents – This is still really important, although it will no longer be court-ordered in a visitation schedule like it is for young kids.  Encourage your child to spend time with your ex-spouse and don’t say negative things about them. 

Remember that your college aged child is adjusting to a lot at this stage of life, including living on their own for the first time.   Being thoughtful about the announcement and process of divorce will ease the transition for your child and allow them to focus on creating their own life instead of taking care of yours.