Divorce is arguably one of the most painful experiences an individual must endure. Whether vows have been broken, lies have been told, or love has been lost, divorce can strike pain at our very core, as a person we once loved more than any other is now some bitter stranger. But we’re not the only one who feels this insurmountable pain. What about the people who depend on us daily for security, food, and love? What about the most important products of our lost marriage? What about our children?
For children, divorce disrupts the bonds they have with both their parents. The social reality of an intact family that had been created for them since birth is now just a memory. Whereas you can fathom and understand the changes that are taking place in your lives, young children are not so capable and may not know how to cope. Divorce creates immense stress for children and often leads to behavior problems at school, increased aggression, lower grades, and sometimes depression. These immediate repercussions of divorce in children are clearly evident to parents, and many work lovingly and diligently to help their children through the divorce process. However, the long-term effects, the deeply held emotions that are not adequately worked through, can follow children into adulthood and lead to major difficulties in emotional and physical health.
Divorce is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a serious emotional trauma that contributes to toxic stress that harms a child’s brain and can result in long-term health problems. Along with divorce, other ACEs are childhood abuse, neglect, violence, parental substance abuse, mental illness in the immediate family, and homelessness. The Center for Disease Control’s ground breaking ACE study surveying 17,421 adults found that for every adverse childhood experience that a child endures, their risk for the leading causes of death in adulthood goes up. Obesity, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, smoking, drinking, cancer, and mental illness are all correlates of adverse childhood experiences.
The researchers explained that when children experience an ACE, or more than one ACE, toxic stress builds up in their lives and creates real neurological changes. ACEs lower a child’s tolerance for stress which makes them more prone to fighting and defiance. The stress inhibits their prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. Immense stress also produces measurable changes in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response center. The traumas also turn a normal thinking brain into a brain that is just trying to survive. Self-protection is now their main priority. Many children’s behavior will reflect “I can’t hear you! I can’t respond to you! I am just trying to be safe!” As they get older, individuals will turn to alcohol, drugs, inappropriate sex, overeating, dangerous sports, and/or over working to try and combat this stress. To them, these coping methods are not problems, but solutions to dull the pain, depression, fear, shame, and anger they still feel from their youth.
This is truly heartbreaking for parents. So many parents would do anything in their power to protect their children from such astounding effects, but even in an immensely loving home sometimes the ACE of divorce is necessary. Sometimes divorce is the best solution for a couple and a family, but that doesn’t make it easy for anyone. However, there is a way to mitigate these heartbreaking effects. There is a way to save your children: The answer is Resilience. Resilience trumps ACE!
Research shows that resiliency produced through loving relationships with parents, neighbors, friends, and family can vastly reduce the effects of ACEs. This drives home the notion that it is so important to positively co-parent following divorce and focus wholeheartedly on the well-being of one’s children during the divorce process. The great thing is that parents can be agents of change in boosting their children’s resiliency following emotional trauma like divorce.
How to build resilience in your children:
- Make connections – Teach your children skills to make friends and build their ability to feel empathy for others. Ensure that they are not isolated at school or in their after-school activities. Connecting with others gives children social support in times of need and greatly boosts their resilience to trauma and stress. Also, if religion and spirituality is important to your family, encourage your children to become engaged at your worship center and turn to God as a constant support.
- Help your children by having them help others – Helping others can empower children who feel helpless in the face of their parents’ divorce. Volunteering can foster many great emotional and physical skills in children.
- Maintain a daily routine – Make sure that your children have stability in their lives with a routine. Remember that the parenting plan you have set forth is for their best interest, not necessarily yours. Stick to it for them.
- Teach your children self-care – Be an example to your children of someone who cares about him or herself enough to eat well, exercise, and get adequate rest. Encourage your children to take pride in their health and ability to be physically strong. Also, ensure that they have time to have fun and relax. Not every minute for them needs to be scheduled.
- Move toward their goals – Help your children set and focus on personal goals for themselves. These goals can be at school, in their relationships, hobbies, or sports. Every tiny step they make towards that goal and the praise they receive from you for doing so will help them realize their potential to accomplish what they put their mind to.
- Nurture a positive self-view – Help your children to believe in their inherent strength to survive difficult times. Remind them of your enduring love for them and that you will be there to help them through.
- Accept that change is part of living – Change is difficult for every person in the world. But change is a necessary pathway to growth. Help your children to see that the changes to your family, albeit different, don’t have to be bad. Help them recognize how the new family structure can be beneficial to them in many surprising ways.
Most of all, throughout the divorce process and in the years to come of a new family life, show your children how much you and your former spouse love them. Love is something that we cannot have enough of and your children will need to feel it now more than ever.
Divorce will still leave children as unfortunate victims, but it is our hope that you as parents understand how difficult divorce is to them, as it is to you, and can learn the keys to ensuring the well-being and enduring strength of your children.
Take the ace-score-quiz to see how many ACEs you or your child has had.
Take the resilience-score-quiz to see how many protective factors you or your child has.
Felitti, V. J. et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. doi: 10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
Hess, R. D. & Camara, K. A. (1979). Post-Divorce Family Relationships as Mediating Factors in the Consequences of Divorce for Children. Journal of Social Issues, 35(4), 79-96. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1979.tb00814.x
Stevens, J. E. (2012, October 3). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the largest, most important public health study you never heard of — began in an obesity clinic. [Blog]. Retrieved from https://acestoohigh.com/2012/10/03/the-adverse-childhood-experiences-study-the-largest-most-important-public-health-study-you-never-heard-of-began-in-an-obesity-clinic/
Stone, R. (2016). Extremities: The Pain and Promise of Divorce. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 3, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/extremities-the-pain-and-promise-of-divorce/
(n.d.) Resilience Guide For Parents and Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience.aspx