No parent wants to think of their divorce as an “adverse childhood experience” for their child. However, parental separation/divorce is considered one of the leading adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can cause stress and even trauma that follows them into adulthood.
Here in California, our leaders, including the surgeon general, have made tackling ACEs a priority. The California Office of the Surgeon General is “advancing systemic reforms that recognize, and respond to, the effects of ACEs on lifelong health.”
Divorce often accompanies other ACEs
Of course, divorce in itself isn’t the most severe ACE. The top ones include physical and sexual abuse (of the child or a parent) and physical or emotional neglect. They also include parental substance abuse, mental illness and incarceration. The more ACEs a child has experienced, the greater their risk is having unresolved trauma that needs to be addressed before they develop serious physical and emotional issues that can follow them into adulthood.
Parental divorce often accompanies these other ACEs. However, even when it’s a child’s sole ACE, it can still cause depression, anxiety and distrust that can lead to substance abuse and relationship issues of their own.
Parental divorce can be the best thing for a child
Certainly, none of this means that parents shouldn’t end an unhappy or unhealthy marriage. These relationships can be highly stressful for a child to be around. It just means that parents need to be aware of the effect that a bitter divorce or even one without a clearly defined co-parenting relationship can have on their child.
No two children – even within the same family – handle parental divorce the same. Some kids deal easily with change. For others, even a small change can be traumatic. There’s no right or wrong way for your child to feel about your divorce. It’s important to watch for concerning changes in your child.
When co-parents can negotiate a custody agreement that works best for their child and develop a parenting plan that will help them provide consistent parenting across their homes, they can help minimize the effect of their divorce on their child. Having sound legal guidance helps.