Divorce, ACEs and Your Kids – Part 1
Did you ever think of divorce as not just difficult, but something that may be traumatic for children? Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic things that happen to a child, things over which a child has no control. Losing a parent to separation, divorce, or other reasons has been identified as one of the ten ACEs. With up to half of marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce (and rates even higher for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th marriages), it’s wise to understand how ACEs can follow a child as he grows, impact his learning potential in school, and impact his life potential as an adult.
The ACE Study (Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess connections between chronic stress, abuse, and neglect in childhood and later-life health. The ACE Study confirms early childhood adversity impacts physical and mental health in adults. Childhood trauma manifests in adult issues including chronic health conditions (think lung and heart disease), anxiety, depression, high risk behaviors and health ramifications tied to illicit drug use and alcoholism. If an adult experienced ACEs in childhood, his/her lifespan may actually be shortened by ten years or more!
When parents are separating or divorcing, it can be challenging to “play nice” and the situation may become volatile. This stresses children whether they are two or in their teens. They worry about what’s happening to their family and that worry will show up in their behavior and how they’re doing in school.
School psychologist Gem Henderson of the Oroville Union High School District says, “Going through a significant family change like a divorce introduces new stressors into a child’s life. Some children may internalize their stress and withdraw. Others may externalize and act out. Either way, this can affect how they do in school.”
Henderson sees an average of 150 high school students a year for a variety of reasons. About 10% of them are new referrals, students who seem to suddenly lose focus in the classroom, their grades plummeting, some demonstrating behavior changes and getting into trouble on campus. These can all be warning signs that something isn’t going right at home. Henderson often refers students to short-term counseling, tackling issues like anxiety and depression, and helping them get back on track within a few months. Other times, students are struggling with deeper issues and benefit from on-going counseling which is offered on campus or in the home, ideally including parents in the mix.
Some stress and anger are normal for children during a divorce, but acknowledging it and keeping it to a minimum will help your child sidestep learning and behavior challenges from preschool to high school.