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How Your Toxic Divorce is REALLY Impacting Your Kids

Divorce is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience, let alone a toxic one. The best buffer is you: the calm, present, engaged, and empathetic you.
(3 min 43 sec read)

Ali Wilks
A certified stepfamily and couples relationship coach, Mom, Stepmom, and creator of The Successful Stepcouple Retreat.

Divorce in itself is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience, let alone a toxic one. Childhood traumatic experiences are scored with a test called the Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. There are 10 dimensions that are scored within 3 domains of abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. Household dysfunction includes experiences like domestic violence, parental mental health issues, parental addiction or parental incarceration. The more the stressors or traumatic experiences a child has before the age of 18, the higher their ACEs score and the greater their risk of poor mental, physical, and emotional health outcomes. And, the younger a child is the more profound the impact on child developmental outcomes.1

In recent training, I learned in more detail how traumatic experiences in childhood have the potential to create negative trajectories for adult health and wellbeing. Research shows that childhood trauma has been linked to increased risk of mental health disorders, addictions, suicides, family violence, high blood pressure and heart disease in adulthood. For example, a child who experiences physical abuse may grow up to have unhealthy intimate relationships, physically abuse their own children, and choose unhealthy options like drugs and alcohol to cope with stress. Subsequently, the coping methods they choose could lead to serious health issues, addiction, and even early death. 

Attached to trauma is chronic stress or toxic stress. Stress and trauma hang out together like sinister best friends. Science shows that stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine) released by the body during the stress response has an impact on brain development.2,3  Stress creates smaller brains and fewer brain connections.  That creates a window of vulnerability for the littles in homes where daily battles occur. And here’s why that is such a big deal: ninety percent of brain development occurs before the age of five. In fact, all the stress of traumatic events causes the same stress response in the body as swimming in shark-infested waters.  So, kids in homes where there are lots of trauma experiences are swimming with sharks every day. An additional critical piece? These kids love the sharks they are swimming with the sharks are called ‘mom and dad’. 

As I learned about the ACEs tool, I wasn’t surprised to see that a parent with addictions or mental illness would be listed, but so was divorce.  That surprised me. Nearly half of marriages end in divorce, does that mean all kids born to divorcing parents are going to be damaged, walking wounded?  No, it doesn’t. The most damage – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual comes from the divorces that are high conflict. Especially if that behavior continued after the couple separated or divorced. 

The stress that is caused by the negativity of your separation or divorce puts your child in a position of fight or flight, increasing the stress hormones in their little bodies. The nasty, vindictive and repetitive battles in courtrooms also have a profound impact on a child’s wellbeing.  Insecurity, lack of self-esteem, feeling a lack of control, feeling unsafe, eating disorders are all well-documented outcomes of high-conflict homes.

I’ve supported fathers and stepmothers working to reduce the negativity and stress the children experience as a result of high conflict exes bent on their revenge agenda. In fact, I have heard time and again of the need to have neutral settings to exchange the kids and emergency protection orders. It happens. But if you are in this situation, you need to find ways to buffer this trauma your kids are being exposed to.  

The best buffer is you. But not the angry, resentful, hurtful you. Rather, the calm, present, engaged and empathetic you. What the heck is that?! A parent willing to heal and work to unravel themselves from the battles between exes, and a parent who takes care of their health. This type of parent isn’t so depleted they have nothing to give to their kids. This type of parent sets up proper boundaries to protect their children from toxic situations. This parent takes the time to connect with, be with and talk with their child every day, or at least as often as possible. If you need help, talk to a mental health professional for yourself and find one for your kids. More importantly, find one who specializes in childhood trauma. And keep at it!  

The negative outcomes linked to childhood trauma are not a sure thing, but a strong possibility.  There is hope, as long as you buffer your child as soon as you can.  


  1. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the Largest Public Health Study You Never Heard Of, Jane Ellen Stevens, Contributor | Huffington Post
  2. Effects of Stress on Brain Development | Better Brains for Babies 
  3. ACEs, Toxic Stress and Resilience | Alberta Family Wellness

More Info:

Adverse Childhood Experiences | U.S. Center for Disease Control

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