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'You're an adult and your parents are fighting, but it's not your job to fix their relationship'

Regardless of your age, if your parents aren’t getting on or are separating, it’s not easy. It is often assumed that adult children can take it on the chin, but it is not that straight forward, writes Bernadette Ryan.

YOU COME HOME for the weekend, looking forward to spending some family time with your parents who, at this stage in your life, don’t seem as dorky as they used to.

Individually they seem happy to see you but somehow you can never seem to get together with them both.

Something seems to be awry. Your parents seem to be constantly sniping at each other. They are acting as if everything is normal but you have a sinking feeling in your heart that all is not well in Camelot.

Then, over a cup of tea, you hear the dreaded words; “we are not getting along very well lately, we are going to separate”.

What? My parents! This can’t be. What can I do? How can I fix this? The short answer is that you can’t.

When a relationship breaks down, regardless of the reasons, loss, pain and hurt are inevitable. Your parents are hurting and may be hurting each other.

They may be arguing overtly or behaving towards each other in seething contemptuous way. There are many losses; loss of the couple, loss of the family unit as is, loss of what was and loss of what was hoped to be. It is a difficult time for all concerned.

Children are the causalities 

Children are almost always a casualty of separation and divorce with the different age groups impacted in various ways. Teens have been identified as being especially vulnerable to the potential negative impact of separation and divorce.

But what of adult children? What are the possible challenges for them?

In your twenties and thirties you will have probably detached from your parents both psychologically and physically. You are no longer a dependent child or a confused adolescent. You are an independent autonomous well functioning adult.

So why might the thoughts of your parents separating render you feeling like a helpless vulnerable child? Quite often there is a sense that parents can be taken for granted, they are in the background somewhere but they will always be there to turn to when needed.

They are the rock that we can always depend upon. They are our safe harbour when the seas of life get rough. They are our secure base. It can come as a tremendous shock to be faced with the loss of that security. It can shake us to the very core and make us question our trust in life.

These thought processes are something I see a lot during separation support counselling sessions.

Depending on children, emotionally

It is often assumed that adult children can take it on the chin. One or both parents can turn to their child for emotional support and confide in them about intimate details of their relationship. Regardless of the age of their children, many parents can begin to depend on them emotionally turning the relationship into one of confidant  instead of parent-child.

This can be a  very confusing and unwanted dynamic in the relationship. Loyalties can be expected leaving the adult child feeling torn and disloyal. It can be very difficult to standby and witness a parent who may be feeling vulnerable and lonely. There are many losses experienced by all including extended family and friends.

Family occasions can become fraught with tension and the unspoken, the unacknowledged; “let’s all carry on like nothing’s changed!” There’s discomfort with separation and divorce. There are no rules, no set formulas and families try to make them up as they go along.

The whole process can be sad and painful. But if a relationship is at its end the couple involved need to strive to end it on the best possible terms, especially when there are children involved. Painful as the separation process is, research shows that when the parents work together to separate with respect and care, the negative impact on their children is minimised.

It is no different for adult children. Adult children may be able to understand the situation a bit better than if they were younger but, that does not mean they can or need to try and fix things. There is a lot of help and support that their parents can access. All children are entitled to a relationship with both of their parents who, despite the breakdown of their relationship, will always be their parents. The family remains, it is merely changing shape.

Bernadette Ryan is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland. For more information on our counselling including our Separation Support services or to book a consultation you can contact 01 678 5256, email or visit

Relationships Ireland also offers counselling for teenagers who are affected by separation through our ‘Teen-Between’ service. For more information please visit

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