Since the divorce rate peaked in the 1980s, we have learned a great deal about how divorce affects children, and what it is about divorce that negatively affects them. We know today that children of divorce are at an increased risk of serious and long term mental and physical health effects.
A 1998 study by healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control of more than 17,000 adult patients showed that “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (“ACEs”) can have lasting effects on human health. Some ACEs are things you might expect to find having such an effect, like physical or sexual child abuse. But among the list of ACEs is one you might not expect: divorce.
Dr. Nadine Burke, the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, recently wrote a book entitled: The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity that describes not only how ACEs affect us symptomatically, but why they affect us physically and the depth of the effect. In a recent interview by National Public Radio, she describes the relationship between ACEs and health effects:
When kids are exposed to very high levels of chronic stress or adversity — or really intense and scary experiences — it actually changes the way their brains and bodies are wired. And that can lead to changes in brain development, changes in the development of the immune system, our hormonal systems, and even all the way down to the way our DNA is read and transcribed. And that is what can lead to this condition that's now known as toxic stress — and put folks at an increased risk of lifelong health problems.
The studies show verifiable physical changes to brain structure, inflammation of the cardiovascular system, and hormonal changes. The effects of these physical changes are not limited to physical health. ACEs and toxic stress greatly increases the risk of behavior problems, depression, substance abuse and under-performance in school.
The research on ACEs shows that it is the conflict and chronic stress involved in divorce that places divorce squarely on the list of ACEs. Being the child of divorce, I was not the least bit surprised to read this. The fact of divorce was traumatic, but it was the stress and conflict that was created by the reaction to the divorce that I recall as being incredibly difficult to overcome.
The silver lining in all of this is that parents facing divorce today know what to do to avoid serious health issues for their children: reduce the conflict and stress caused by divorce. Yet we are so programmed in this country to do just the opposite. The knee jerk is to “lawyer up” and fight. This is simply madness based on what we know today about the impact divorce conflict and stress can cause our children.
I understand from long experience the emotions that flow from divorce are legitimate, but we simply know too much today to excuse parents who let these emotions control them and put their children at risk. I have had the privilege of guiding people through divorce who were wronged, had cause for bitterness and were advised by family members to fight out of spite, but chose a non-adversarial route because they knew it would be better for their children. It may seem heroic, but that is simply what being a parent requires during divorce. These parents deserve our praise and encouragement.
The good news for parents facing divorce is that they don’t need to put their own interests last in order to put their children’s interests first. Today parents can choose mediation and collaborative practice. Both methods allow parents to divorce in a non-adversarial way that reduces ongoing conflict and promotes healthy co-parenting after the divorce is final. Both methods achieve these goals while fully protecting the interests of the parents. You might think that choosing collaborative practice or mediation is a no-brainer for parents. And considering that both methods are faster and less expensive than hiring dueling adversarial attorneys, you’d be right.