Divorce impacts children. No matter how you look at it, children of divorce and children with separated parents will experience life differently than those whose parents are together. For most of my career as a collaborative family law attorney and divorce culture expert, I’ve studied the impacts of adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, and how this concept relates to children of divorce. 

Throughout this article, we’ll discuss how ACEs can be linked to divorce, research that explains the impact on children, and how we can address this in the future. I’ll discuss this later but I want to note that with out-of-court divorce methods like collaborative law, mediation, and settlement negotiation, parents are able to mitigate the overall impact that their divorce may have on their children. My North Carolina-based law firm, AN|R Law: A Negotiated Resolution, focuses solely on these types of alternative dispute resolution methods. I will reference some of my experiences as a family law attorney and researcher that support these processes as well as how ACEs can be used to analyze children of divorce. 

Explaining ACEs and the Link to Divorce

The concept of ACEs was created to help children, from birth to 17 years of age, who experienced violence, neglect, or abuse; witnessed violence in their home or in their community; or had a family member die by overdose or suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are other aspects of a child’s environment that have a role in ACEs as their sense of safety, stability, and bonding can be affected. This includes growing up in a household with parental separation, substance abuse problems, mental health problems, or family members being in jail or prison.

As a family law professional, it is clear to me that children of divorce are subject to ACEs, especially children of traditional divorce through litigation. According to a large research project done by Child Trends, the nation’s leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives of children and youth, children of divorce were highlighted. In the study titled “Adverse Childhood Experiences: National and State-Level Prevalence,” it was found that economic hardship is the most common adverse childhood experience (ACE) reported nationally followed by divorce or separation of a parent or guardian. However, in Iowa, Michigan, and Vermont, divorce or separation are more common than economic hardship.

To further support this, the Stop Abuse Campaign states that divorce is very much part of ACEs and is actually one of the most common types. Many children who are identified with ACEs admit that their parents are also divorce or separated. The organization states that, “from a child’s point of view, divorce represents a huge change in their family, and in their understanding of how the world works and where they fit into it. They are likely to move to another house, they are likely to see one parent less than they’re used to, they may change schools, and they may slide into a different income bracket.”

An interactive infographic from the BMJ, a medical research journal, shows how adversity in childhood is linked to mental and physical health throughout life. In this report, divorce is noted as an event that can be a major stressor in a child’s life. And, as a result, divorce can contribute to physical and behavior impacts throughout childhood and later in life. The authors write, “adversity in the first years of life may deleteriously affect the course of human development.”

The interactive infographic used by the authors in the BMJ article shows the wide range of possible consequences throughout the lifetime of children suffering adverse experiences in their early years.

How Children are Impacted by Divorce

Not only have I dedicated my professional career to collaborative family law, I have personal experience with divorce too. My parents divorced when I was young and it has affected me throughout my entire life. Over the years, this impacted how I saw myself, handled relationships, and approached conflict. Due to the way that I was exposed to my parents’ divorce as a child, it caused me years of pain and sometimes brokenness and trauma. I’m not alone, either. There are millions of children of divorce with very similar stories. I wrote about some of these stories in my book, The Cure for Divorce Culture. Throughout the book, I share extensive research and findings that expose the myths and stereotypes behind divorce culture to illuminate the cure and incite transformation nationwide. 

As part of the process, I analyzed statistics about children who experienced divorce through litigation and addressed divorce as a common type of adverse childhood experience. I also dove into the psychological impact of children witnessing conflict. These findings unveiled in my book show that children of litigated divorce have an increased risk of complications in personal relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violence:

  • 200% of children are more likely to get divorced when both spouses come from a divorced home
  • 50% more likely to get divorced when one spouse is from a divorced home
  • 18.9% of children living with one parent have a drug or alcohol problem
  • 18.8% of children of divorce suffered from a lifetime of alcohol dependence
  • 30% increase in likelihood of suicide attempts by adult children of divorce
  • 82% of 56 school shooters grew up in dysfunctional families and/or with separated parents

These statistics prove that litigated divorce is an adverse childhood experience and should be considered as such before, during, and after a parent’s separation or divorce. 

Addressing and Preventing ACEs in Divorce

To combat ACEs, many states are beginning to implement task forces. I’m excited to share that North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby recently created the North Carolina Task Force on ACEs-Informed Courts. This mission of this group is to understand the impact of ACEs on children and to develop strategies for addressing adverse childhood experiences within the State’s court system. You can read more about how the Task Force will accomplish this mission, by clicking here. There are various experts and professionals on the Task Force that provide insight and guidance on ACEs in their areas. This includes judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, law enforcement, private attorneys, and child-representatives, as well as academic leaders. I am excited to see that this Task Force was created and look forward to the work they will do to help children who have experienced trauma and are involved in the court system. Chief Justice Newby is a valuable partner for alternative dispute resolution and is a known advocate for children of divorce. In fact, he has read my book, The Cure for Divorce Culture, and provided the following statement of its content and my work:

“Thank you so much for sharing a copy of your book. Given your personal experiences, you are uniquely situated to understand the challenges from multiple perspectives. As your book indicates, the prevention of walls being erected during the difficult circumstances of marriage dissolution has multiple long term benefits for everyone involved. Thank you for your efforts in this very important arena.”

– North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby

In addition to addressing ACEs from the court perspective for criminal cases stemming from violence and abuse, there are various ways we can address it in family law as well. For instance, when a divorce is handled outside of the courtroom using nonviolent communication tactics through a respectful and thoughtful process, there will likely be less stress and trauma for any children involved. That’s one of the many reasons why I’m proud to practice collaborative family law in North Carolina. AN|R Law, with office locations in Raleigh, Greenville, Beaufort, and Wilmington, is honored to focus on alternative dispute resolution methods that keep families out of court during divorce and other family law matters such as custody and alimony. Having these types of legal processes take place without litigation is a way to reduce the risks of ACEs for children of divorce. 

For instance, during a collaborative divorce, the parents and their collaborative-trained attorneys will sit down for a series of roundtable discussions that address the divorce agreement. Together, they all work through the business of their marriage and divide assets and debts while creating a shared parenting plan that works for everyone. During the entire divorce process, the children are not involved and are not present. However, if needed, the divorcing spouses can bring in child specialists to help guide decisions when creating a co-parenting agreement and assessing the overall wellbeing of the children involved. I’ve been practicing this type of law for over 10 years and have found that it’s by far the healthiest way to divorce for not only the spouses but also their children.

Learn More About Divorcing Healthy

If you and your spouse are considering separation or divorce, I want you to know that it can be done in a healthy manner that doesn’t inflict trauma on your children. With four locations across North Carolina in Raleigh, Greenville, Beaufort, and Wilmington, AN|R Law is committed to serving families statewide. You can call 252-702-4376 or fill out this online contact form.

Click here to read more about my law practice and healthy methods of divorce including collaborative, mediation, and settlement negotiation. You can also directly connect with me on social media by following @ANRLaw. I also recommend listening to my podcast, “Divorce, Healthy! with Ashley-Nicole Russell,” to learn more about divorcing healthy and preventing ACEs when dealing with divorce.

If you’re interested in inviting me, Ashley-Nicole Russell, to speak at your next event or conference, I’d be honored to talk with you about the opportunity. I’m currently booking in-person and virtual speaking engagements for late 2022 and 2023. Please reach out to my team by emailing media@anrlaw.com.