Early trauma from abuse, neglect, household dysfunction, having an incarcerated relative, mental health and yes, divorce and separation, can set up a child to carry trauma into adulthood. Or not.
The ACES rating of adverse childhood experiences is one way that professionals chart a child’s risk level for lifelong trauma. Take the test here.
The higher your ACES score, the higher risk you’re at for long-lasting impact. Childhood trauma can impact emotionally and physically, since we only have one brain that runs our body and our emotions. Everything is interconnected. So when a child complains of a stomachache or a headache, it might actually be connected to their emotions around a trauma in the family.
But not all trauma has long-lasting effects. So how can you tell when it will?
From the day we’re born, we are building up brain patterns, and a sense of what’s normal. Everybody comes out of their family of origin with a sense of what normal family behaviors might be. That doesn’t mean they’re healthy – just their sense of normal.
It’s pretty hard to create a new sense of normal in your mind, so when an experience is traumatizing, that’s the normal they’ve always lived in. Sometimes, a person just doesn’t have the skills to understand or know how to live inside of healthy, non-dysfunctional relationships. That can play itself out in many ways.
Parents should consider their own dysfunction, what kinds of things they experienced in their own childhood. Whatever it is, it’s likely impacting and informing the way they build their own family.
Divorce or separation is one indicator of having an adverse childhood experience. But just one. If that’s the only trauma a child experiences, it may not be that scarring. It all depends on how the parents handle it – at the outset, and going forward.
An ACES score of 1 is very low for risk of trauma building the architecture of a child’s brain, very low for risk in terms of impact into the middle school, teenage, young adult and adult years.
So if our kids are starting out at a 1, let’s put in every effort to make sure there is no increase in the score and they’re not experiencing high levels of family dysfunction, abuse or neglect.
I want the families I work with to know that they’re already starting at a 1 as a way to motivate them to realize that a) they haven’t ruined their child’s life by separating or getting divorced, but b) they need to recognize that of course it’s had some impact. The key is to make sure it doesn’t mushroom.
The ACES rating is a helpful tool for adults divorcing, separating, or experiencing problems with their co-parent, to take a look at themselves and see what they’ve come from and how that might be manifesting itself in their adult relationships and as a parent. How it may be impacting the world around them.
Because if they can realize their own childhood traumas, they can get help in the form of therapeutic intervention to make them a better parent. Gaining self-awareness and healing from their own experiences will also make them a better co-parent — even if their co-parent is very, very difficult.
They can at least gain the tools to handle co-parenting from a better space.
The state of Michigan feels that ACES is a great tool to help people protect their children from childhood trauma. It’s a relatively easy tool that is simple to understand, so there is hope to end childhood trauma in one’s family line.
If we can stop trauma in its tracks and put more effort into healing, we will set up our society for a better, more functional way forward.
Unaddressed trauma stays in the body and eats you up from the inside. The younger a person is when experiencing trauma, the harder it is to process, which leads to internalized anxiety and fear.
But it always comes out. You might see the effects as time progresses. Kids don’t come out unscathed from their parents being apart, even if the parents get along well. So if that’s an admitted trauma, let’s do our best to make sure there won’t be more.