When we think of childhood trauma, we think of poor neighborhoods, inner cities, desolate rural areas, or other economically disadvantaged countries. Trauma sounds extremist. But, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not those other people, they were us. Researchers looked at 17,421 middle-aged adults with jobs and good healthcare living in California; seventy-four percent were college educated.
Divorce can and does set the stage for children and adolescents to experience chronic, unpredictable toxic stress, otherwise known as childhood trauma. And, divorce happens every day, it is ubiquitous it sometimes seems. It can be the loophole kids fall through even when they have good, healthy, loving, responsible parents. The stress caused by a family splitting can last a short time and cause one adverse childhood experience or it can set the stage for a cascade of negative experiences that change a child’s ability to deal with stress for a lifetime, setting them up for both immediate learning and psycho-social consequences, as well as chronic physical and emotional health conditions later in life.
It’s losing a parent in body, mind, and/or spirit. It’s being split between loyalties to one parent against the other, essentially handicapping their mind, psyche, and emotions. It’s trying to carry on as you always have when the world as you’ve known it collapses and everyone says, “They will be fine. Kids are resilient.” It can come from the parent introducing a new significant other and just moving on like nothing has happened. It can come from one or both parents being devastated and just barely making it through the day.
The good news is it’s not divorce, per se, that can cause real harm to our kids; it’s losing their secure attachment to one or both parents that can cause the real damage. The single greatest thing you can do for your kids if you are getting a divorce is to keep them connected to you (stay close even if you are the one to move) and to help them stay connected to their other parent too. This means fostering the attachment to the other parent. Yes, the one who is hurting you more than you thought possible or you are so angry at that you can’t look in their general direction.
The second most important thing you can do for your kids is to be kind, supportive, and compassionate to their other parent. Healthy, happy parents parent healthy, happy kids. The more turmoil, stress, hardship you cause for the other parent, the more of all of that you will cause your child. This is the case even if it looks as though your child is happy when they are with you. They will be their best self for a while, until the threat of you leaving subsides. Helping them deal with their sadness, anger, locked down emotions will bring the whole family out of the abyss and back into the sunshine of life. This is good for your kids and consequently is good for you too.
“Together, the two discoveries – the epidemiology of the ACE Study and the brain research — reveal a story too compelling to ignore:
Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”