Here at the Kids First Center, an agency whose mission is to lessen the negative impact of divorce and parental separation on kids, we talk with parents every day who are dealing with one of the most stressful life events they will ever encounter. They worry about how they’ll get through the next week, month or year, and they worry about the long-term effects of their decisions on the kids. What do we tell parents? Keep your kids out of the middle and away from prolonged conflict. It’s not divorce or separation that harms kids so much as the toxic stress of living with years of negativity and discord between parents who aren’t co-parenting effectively. And now, recent scientific discoveries reinforce just how damaging chronic exposure to stress hormones early in life can be.
Scientists at MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, are now studying exactly how stress incites inflammation in the body and, in turn, disease. A comprehensive study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC in the late 1990’s proved the relationship between chronic stress early in life caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and health problems associated with inflammation and immune dysfunction that developed in adulthood. These adverse childhood experiences were identified as physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical, emotional neglect; parental mental illness; parental substance dependence; parental incarceration; parental separation or divorce; and domestic violence. When they surveyed over 17,000 adults and asked about their childhoods, a strong correlation was discovered between those with the highest ACE scores, meaning those who had experienced the most adversity in their childhood, and those with the most disease in adulthood.
Renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, in her 2014 TEDMED Talk, tells us that many people look at this data and say, “Come on. You have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things that are going to ruin your health. This isn’t science. This is just bad behavior.” But the truth is, Harris tells us, even if people don’t engage in any high-risk behavior, they’re still more likely to develop heart and lung disease, cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, suicidality, etc., if they experienced chronic stress in their childhood. Why is that?
In times of stress, our body gets a signal to release stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which initiates the pounding heart, dilated pupils and open airways that prepare us to do battle in a classic fight-or-flight response. However, Harris explains, when this system is continuously activated and C-reactive protein levels are constantly elevated, as is the case for children living in the chronically stressful environments mentioned above, it may become health-damaging. Children are especially vulnerable because their brains and bodies are still developing. “High doses of adversity not only affect developing brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed,” says Harris.
Thankfully, not all divorces and separations involve “high doses of adversity.” But the sad truth is that far too many still do. Our kids are not only reacting emotionally when they overhear us fighting or badmouthing their other parent, rolling our eyes, slamming phones or refusing to communicate altogether. Our kids are reacting physically as well, their bodies flooding with stress hormones that have a cumulative effect and, we now know, can cause them serious health problems years down the road in their adult life.
Dr. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, believes that “adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” The potential to harm our children’s future health is real. What can be done to prevent these dire outcomes for our kids? Medical screening, individual and family counseling, support groups, co-parenting education, meditation and exercise all have a role to play in the prevention, identification and treatment of toxic stress in children. At Kids First, we work with kids in support groups where we give them tools for coping with stress and alleviating the physical symptoms that often accompany their emotional responses to tense family situations. We work with parents every week in our more intensive programs who are committed to their children’s future health and are working hard to learn ways to prevent future high-conflict interactions with one another. While they know that they can’t undo their mistakes, they understand that they can prevent further harm and are determined not to negatively impact their children’s lifelong health and well-being.