Adverse Childhood Experiences

Why divorce, separation, and death affect children

Divorce, separation, and death are ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experience).

The question is very straightforward, “Were your parents ever separated or divorced?”, and in some versions of the study, another question about a parent or caretaker dying is also added. Divorce and separation are one of the more common ACEs, so it’s worth understanding why this is such a life-altering trauma, one they can lead to shorter sicker lives.

From a child’s point of view, divorce represents a huge change in their family, and in their understanding of how the world works and where they fit into it. They are likely to move to another house, they are likely to see one parent less than they’re used to, they may change schools, and they may slide into a different income bracket. 

It’s important to remember that the original ACE Study was conducted over 20 years ago and questioned people who were born in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, decades when divorce was very rare, very stigmatized, and when a woman supporting herself and her children was very uncommon and the source of much shame and stigma. Is it possible that divorce then was a proxy measure for something else? It’s possible. Literature reviews show that most children seem to recover from divorce within a few years, and as adults, they seem to generally do well. This research did not seek to correlate children’s recovery with other ACEs or other traumas they had experienced, and it did not look at long-term health consequences for children of divorce. So, it’s possible that divorce isn’t necessarily an ACE under all circumstances; we just cannot be sure.

The other obstacle with understanding divorce as an ACE is that there is no way to factor in the impact of the parents’ relationship prior to the divorce on their children. So it makes no sense to support public policies to eliminate divorce. Divorce is always the right answer when one parent is abusing their child or the other parent; minimizing the number of times a child is exposed to abuse, of themselves or their parent, helps them recover from it and can minimize some consequences outside the scope of the ACE study. Neurochemical and cellular research that happened after the ACE study has demonstrated that the chronic stress and fear associated with abuse or neglect is the mechanism that changes the way children’s brains and tissues develop. If, as a parent, you feel that your marriage is so stressful that it is harming you or your children, divorce is probably the best answer. Steps should be taken to ensure that it is as minimally disruptive for children as possible, and parents who date again after the divorce should be mindful that step-fathers are the single group of people most likely to sexually abuse a child. 

It’s also worth noting that divorce, separation, and the death of a parent are the only ACEs that are discussed openly, with minimal shame or stigma. If a child’s parents divorce this will likely become common knowledge within the child’s school and circle of friends. Any form of abuse, neglect, addiction, mental illness, or parental incarceration is likely to be hidden from as many people as possible. Judges typically order children into therapy after their parent’s divorce- this is not the case with other ACEs.