According to the CDC, in 2020, 51% of marriages ended in divorce. There is a high possibility you or someone you know has experienced the devastation of divorce, either as a child or in your own adulthood, separating from the partner. We do know from the statistics that parental separation or divorce is common and that we’re sharing this experience with many people. But, to personally experience your own family going through parental separation, divorce, or death, is an ACE and trauma of its own that we need to understand.
Similar to other Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), parental separation (including the death of a loved one) and divorce may cause high levels of stress and emotional trauma for both parents and children.
What happens to a child when going through parental separation or divorce?
Children of all ages may have difficulty adapting to the changes brought on by their parents’ separation or divorce. Some of the expected consequences of parental separation, divorce, or death include:
- Loss of stability (family unit),
- Living in a new place,
- Adjusting to a new routine,
- Switching schools, and
- Finding different friends.
These changes or even the anticipation of a change may foster a broad range of mixed feelings and emotions. Fear, uncertainty, anger, sadness, and anxiety are the most common emotions related to parental separation or divorce. These feelings may seem confusing, and a child may not know how to handle them.
Due to all these consequences of parental separation, divorce, or death, a child can develop trauma and all sorts of problems, like mental health and behavioral problems, some of which unfortunately last for a lifetime, as the ACE study explores.
Apart from that, the reasons for the parental separation or divorce may have included other ACEs, such as intimate partner violence or an incarcerated household member.
Did you somehow contribute to your parents’ separation or divorce?
If you went through your parents’ divorce, separation, or death, it may have been difficult to recognize this as a child, but you can now—your parents’ separation or divorce is not your fault.
There’s nothing you did wrong and nothing you could’ve done to fix it. It wasn’t because you got a bad grade in school, fought with your sister/brother, or were a poorly behaving or faulty child in any way. It had nothing to do with you.
No child is faulty. No child deserves to go through such a painful experience. Your parents got separated or divorced because of a failure in their relationship, as a couple.
It still hurts! How to cope with my parents’ separation now, as an adult?
When parents decide to separate or divorce, it can be very traumatic to a child. According to the National Library of Medicine, most parents/children adapt to their new “normal” within two years.
However, we cannot put a timeline on the healing process and you may still be reacting to this stress and may be still hurting. It’s ok if you feel that way. Every child will experience and express the stress/emotional trauma of parental separation or divorce differently. Understand that the reactions to parental separation or divorce are part of childhood trauma. They are natural responses to the traumatic changes that occurred in your life, as parental separation, divorce, or death, is one of the ACEs.
Parental separation or divorce is challenging, no matter how old you are or how recently or long ago it happened. Trust yourself and don’t downplay your feelings or repress the pain. Talk to someone—a friend, a teacher, or a counselor.
It’s also important not to compare your response, actions, or feelings with your siblings or friends. In other words, it’s not about being happy or unhappy; it’s about feeling secure and knowing that you did not cause this pain and breakup of your family unit.
As previously noted, parental separation, divorce, or death are an ACE. What you can do is to read more about ACEs here. Feel free to also take the ACE test to learn more about yourself. The awareness and knowledge about ACEs in and of itself is helpful and healing.
I’m divorcing. What can I do to help my child?
Parents have the most significant ability to influence how their children will experience the emotions of parental separation or divorce (including the death of a loved one).
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make is keeping the divorce or separation a secret. There is no worse feeling to children than not being told what is going on in their own family and having to figure it out for themselves or hearing about it from someone else.
The best thing a parent can do is sit down with their children and talk about what is going on clearly and concisely. You don’t have to share every detail but reassure them that both parents love them very much and that the divorce is not their fault.
Avoid talking negatively about the other parent and don’t ask your child to take sides. It’s crucial to convey a sense of normalcy and stability during a time of intense confusion and change. Children need support, guidance, and love from their parents—the same love that was perceived before the divorce or separation. Children should never suffer another ACE, such as childhood emotional neglect.
Resources for help
Crisis Text Line – Text HOME to 741741
Up to Parents – Focused on helping separated and divorced parents build better futures by meeting their children’s needs.
Psychology Today’s Divorce Therapist Directory
Resources for Protective Parents at Family Court
You can help make sure this never happens to another child. Learn how by subscribing to our newsletter and supporting our work. Read about the ten categories of ACEs by following our blog. Do you know your ACE score? Take the ACE test here.
Inspired by humanity, equality, and education, Maia is a content writer working diligently to make positive changes in the world by supporting thought leaders and changemakers.