Divorce is always stressful for children, but not all divorces are created equal. No, while some are disruptive but essentially amicable, others are what professionals call high conflict divorces. In a high conflict divorce, former spouses lack the cooperation necessary for effective co-parenting and children may even be used as go-betweens in parental conflict. All of this can have a negative impact on children’s health.
In order to protect your children during the course ofa high-conflict divorce, it’s vital that parents find ways to protect children’s psychological and physical health alike. While you may never be able to work cooperatively with your ex, you can make your home a safe, nurturing space.
When divorce fractures a family, it can lead to a breakdown in communication at all levels,and one way that many children cope with this stress and isolation is by eating their feelings. This phenomenon is so common that researchers found children of divorced parents to be 54% more likely to be overweight than those from intact families. This can lead to a lifetime of weight problems and dangerous eating patterns, including secretive eating, hiding food, and the inability to differentiate between hunger and emotional distress.
One way to counter the development of negative eating habits is by encouraging eating at home and having regular family meals. Family meals are a good opportunity to foster open communication with your children and reassure children that you’re still there to listen to and support them. This will help them build positive associations with food and also allow you to model healthy eating habits.
In the course of divorce, many children attend therapy or a support group, but that doesn’t mean they feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. In fact, some interpret parents’ sending them to therapy as a sign that their parents don’t want to address their problems and want to pawn them off on someone else. And as parents, the cultural emphasis on conscious co-parenting and peaceful divorce can make us reticent to ask for help with our own problems.
One way to demonstrate that it’s okay to ask for help, both from professionals and from family, is by seeking support in navigating your own high conflict divorce and talking about that with your children. For example, if you’ve been trapped in a fight over custody arrangements or other parenting concerns, you might ask for help from a professional parenting coordinator. According to the legal professionals parenting coordinators are “mental health or legal professional[s] with mediation training and experience” that can help navigate the barriers between parents. In many cases, parenting coordinators can diffuse much of the tension between parents and minimize stressful interactions.
Talk to your children honestly about the ways you’re seeking support in the course of your divorce and help them identify people they can turn to for help. This list will, of course, include parents and other family members and therapists, but should also include teachers, school counselors, and religious community members. There’s often a shroud of silence and secrecy about divorce, and children need to be empowered to break that silence if they’re going to be comfortable asking for help.
While young children may respond to divorce by developing separation anxiety, experiencing behavioral regression, or acting out in school, teens often become withdrawn and begin to engage in high-risk behaviors, defined by the CDC as experimenting with drugs or alcohol, engaging in sexual experimentation, driving dangerously, or illicit body modifications, among other behaviors. These behaviors are part of the complex hierarchy of outcomes stemming from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
ACEs include a variety of incidents, including divorce, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, exposure to substance abuse and/or mental illness, and parental incarceration, among others. In a landmark CDC study from the 1990s, only 36% of participants reported no ACEs, while 12.5% reported 4 or more. This data allowed researchers to link ACEs to other negative health outcomes and develop a trajectory that runs from ACEs to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, to high-risk behaviors, greater disease prevalence, and even early death. This is known as the ACEs pyramid.
Good parenting can’t necessarily prevent ACEs, but it can provide intervention at a lower tier of the pyramid. Therapy and similar interventions can minimize social and emotional impairments related to trauma, while guidance, supervision, and open lines of communication can prevent or effectively address high-risk behaviors. The sooner parents can address these emotional and behavioral risks, the more likely they will be able to prevent negative health outcomes, such as increased disease risk, changing the course of the rest of their child’s life.
Nearly 50% of children have divorced parents, and that’s a lot of baseline ACEs. For those involved in high-conflict divorces, though, that number is almost always higher; there may be domestic abuse involved or other direct harms. As parents, we may not be able to improve the circumstances of our marital separation – it takes two to tango, as they say – but we can do our best to provide a solid foundation within our own four walls. This isn’t just about divorce. It’s about your child’s health, now and in the future.