Crow Wing Energized

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Divorce or Separation of a Parent

This article is one of a series aimed at exploring the problem of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their harmful effects on the physical, emotional and mental health of our community. Substantial public health research confirms that mistreatment of children results in a variety of problems for them as they grow into adulthood. Although the problems that result from ACEs create ripple effects throughout our communities, research shows that we can build resilience to the trauma caused by ACEs. Resilience trumps ACEs!

LJohnsonBy Lowell Johnson is a member of the ACEs and Resiliency Coalition (ARC), Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group, and the Brainerd Lakes Area Early Childhood Coalition.


One of the most common Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the divorce or separation of parents. The effect of divorce on children varies widely, but with proper support, children can adjust to this difficult transition. However, according to the website of FamilyMeans, there are a number of possible negative consequences for children experiencing divorce or separation.


Feelings of guilt. Children often blame themselves for their parents divorce, and these feelings of guilt can lead to stress and depression.


Poor performance in school. The changing family dynamics of divorce may cause children to be distracted and less able to focus on academic performance.


Social problems with peers. Children may have a harder time relating to others, have fewer social connections, or feel insecure socially.


Problems adapting to change. Learning to adapt to a new home, school, friends, and changing family dynamics can prove difficult for children.


Emotional sensitivity. Feelings of confusion, loss, anxiety, and anger can produce both emotional roller coasters and emotional sensitivity in children.


Destructive behavior. Children who have experienced divorce may rebel through destructive behaviors such as smoking, alcohol or drug use, and criminal behavior.


Physical health problems. The stress associated with divorcing families can lead to poor physical health in children.


Loss of faith in marriage and family systems. Children of divorcing families want to grow up and have stable relationships, but research shows they have divorce rates up to two to three times higher than children from non-divorcing families.


Resilience Building


While the impact on children of divorcing families can result in serious consequences, parental separation DOES NOT absolutely predict these consequences. Children who successfully navigate the problems presented by divorce have had resiliency building experiences in their lives. According to the article Building Resilience in Children of Divorce, (CHVBV website), the following factors increase child resiliency.


Freedom from exposure to extreme conflict. As parents dissolve their relationship, their personal experiences of anger and other intense emotions need to be dealt with in a safe environment where children are not exposed to intense conflict. Children should not be exposed to the extreme angry feelings of one parent towards the other parent.


Parent education. When parents participate in educational and support programs aimed at understanding divorce from a child’s perspective, their children benefit greatly. Parents Forever is one Minnesota program that provides this service. Other programs aimed at helping with co-parenting after divorce are also helpful.


Therapeutic support. Children and parents can benefit from counseling services by professionals trained in navigating the dynamics of divorce.


Routines and stability. Maintaining familiar routines provides reassurance and stability to children undergoing any form of stress.


Preservation of holiday traditions or development of new traditions. Keeping holiday traditions intact helps minimize the sense of loss commonly felt by children. As new family systems develop after divorce, the opportunity and necessity for new holiday traditions emerge. Especially when children are involved in the creation of these new traditions, positive feelings of attachment and belonging can develop.


Contact with extended family support. Grandparents and other members of extended families can provide needed stability in children’s lives. Opportunities for regular and positive contact with extended family should be part of post divorce planning.


Establish non-conflicted ways for transferring children between homes. Especially if parents are unwilling or unable to be civil to each other for the well-being of the children, third parties may need to be enlisted to insure physically and emotionally safe and consistent transfer procedures. The Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd provides this service.


Protect and preserve children’s time with peers and for extra-curricular activities. As children grow, their world of extra-curricular activities and peer relationships takes on more importance, and offers another source of stability and positive belonging.


Spend time with, and get to know children as individuals. While quality family time and sibling relationships are important for family dynamics, children benefit from one on one time with each parent. Challenging as this may be to implement, healthy families figure out how to plan this time into family life.