Mediate BC Blog

Separation and Divorce as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)

Posted by Lana.Besel

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES)?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are negative, stressful childhood traumas that can impact child development, leading to negative health outcomes in adulthood. In addition to abuse and neglect, ACES include other stressful household experiences including substance abuse, mental illness, and parental separation.

What impact does parental separation have on children?

Parental divorce and separation are significant and stressful events in children’s lives. Family breakup can bring about confusion and uncertainty for children about what will happen next, fear and insecurity over losing what they know as home, and sometimes self-blame and anger as they try to understand the reasons for the separation. Children may grieve over the loss of the family they have always known, and often long for the parent that they are not currently with. Some children may feel rejected or abandoned.

Research has compared children of separated parents with children of parents who remained together. These studies generally find that children with divorced or separated parents have comparatively higher rates of behavioural, psychological and academic difficulties, with some studies finding long term problems.[i] 

That said, these group differences do not tell the whole story. It is important to note that most children from divorced and separated families do not have lasting difficulties, and in fact are well-adjusted, grow up to realize their education/career goals, and have good relationships with their families.[ii]  The impact parental divorce has on a child depends on so many different factors; efforts to understand risk factors and make positive changes that lessen the potential for negative impacts, is the best approach to supporting children through parental separation.


What factors seem to increase negative outcomes for children?

Researchers have outlined some key factors that increase negative outcomes for children: [iii]

High levels of conflict
Exposure to high levels of parental conflict (defined as unresolved, frequent, intense conflict) increases a child’s risk for anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour [iv] and is associated with lower parent-child connectedness.[v] Marital conflict is especially harmful if parents expose their children to their anger for the other parent. Children who witness their parent expressing anger about the other parent, putting down the other parent, or disallowing mention of the other parent, experience more depression and anxiety later in life and more difficulty adjusting to the divorce. Similarly, putting children in the middle of the conflict is also detrimental – for example, asking a child to pick a side, or asking a child to pass on messages to the other parent.[vi] In fact, children in high conflict families have higher levels of well-being if their parents divorced than if they stayed together, while children in low conflict families have higher levels of well-being if their parents stay together than divorce.[vii] In other words, if divorce lowers exposure to conflict, children benefit.

Diminished relationship with one or both parents
Sometimes parental separation results in a parent spending less time with their child, whether that’s because they have remarried, relocated or there are relationship difficulties.[viii] Children tend to do best when they have frequent, continuing, meaningful time with both caring, involved parents.[ix] For example, lower self-esteem in children is associated with low parental contact. [x]

Diminished parenting and parents’ mental health
Parenting can become more challenging following separation, both in terms of providing warmth and affection, and in terms of supervising and setting appropriate boundaries. [xi] Parents may have less social support and/or be experiencing emotional turmoil, thereby negatively impacting their parenting. Sometimes these difficulties predate the separation. In addition, when a parents’ mental health is suffering, this in turn may affect their children’s mental health, their parenting skills and the parent-child relationship.[xii] Therefore, how well parents cope with the separation can directly affect children’s well-being.

New relationships
Children from blended families have a higher likelihood, on average, of adjustment problems. Again, this is not an inevitable consequence of blending families. Many children adjust well in stepfamilies. There is a lot of variability in stepfamilies that make drawing firm conclusions difficult. Some factors that might increase risks for children include: family conflict, economic stress, parental mental health problems, and multiple transitions. [xiii]

Economic hardship
Parental separation and divorce can result in increased economic hardship, which sometimes means that children experience a change in housing, neighbourhoods and schools, adding more potentially difficult transitions in an already tumultuous time.[xiv] It is also possible that economic hardships increase the stress levels of parents, which in turn, impacts the parents’ coping and parenting.


What can parents do to lessen the impact?

Communicate with their children
Talking with children about the separation in age-appropriate ways, and discussing what the future will look like, helps children understand what this change means for them, and lessens their worries. However, children should not be told reasons for the separation that portray one parent as blameworthy or hurtful. In addition, children cope better with their intense emotions, when their parents listen to and acknowledge how they are feeling. Some children blame themselves or feel abandoned – children need to be reassured that they are loved and are not to blame for the separation.

Lessen Conflict
When conflict potential is high, keeping communication brief, focused on the child’s needs, and present-focused and/or future-focused, minimizes the likelihood that communication will divert into blaming and accusations. It is best for children if they see their parents being able to respectfully listen to one another, respond courteously, and be flexible. If parents have frequent, in-person arguments, communication by email/text might work better. So, too, might parenting schedules that minimize in-person exchanges of the children. When devising solutions, keeping expectations clear and consistent reduces disagreements. This Government of Canada resource focuses on ways to parent together with less conflict.

Parental Involvement
Parents who stay involved with their children, and support each other’s involvement in their children’s lives, help their children in the short term and long term. In the short term, ensuring quality time with both parents, and maintaining parenting schedules helps children develop security about when they will see their other parent again. In the long term, children who have two loving, caring, closely involved parents generally cope better with separation and benefit from a strong parent-child relationship.

Meeting their children’s particular needs
A child’s age, gender, temperament and coping skills are all factors that can affect how a child adjusts to separation.To effectively meet a child’s needs, his or her individual characteristics must be appreciated and addressed. Parents can also help their children build resiliency, so they are better able to manage stressful events. Mediate BC's next blog post will be all about resilience.

Seeking help, support and self-care
Separation and divorce are stressful for parents, as well as for children. Parents benefit from finding ways to cope with their own emotions and life changes. This kind of parental self-care in turn helps the children cope, too. Here is a link to a helpful Legal Services Society resource, titled Coping with Separation.


How can mediation help lower the impact of separation/divorce on children?

Mediation helps lower the impact of separation/divorce on children by lessening conflict and preserving relationships. How does mediation lower conflict?

Mediation is non-adversarial
An adversarial approach to resolving family disputes can result in angry, prolonged, expensive proceedings that increase conflict, rather than reduce it. Mediation helps parents cooperate to develop solutions that fit their situation. Children benefit from a process that is less focused on one of their parents “winning” and the other one “losing”. Instead of children witnessing arguments and anger, children can witness their parents working together to resolve their conflict.

Mediation’s solutions minimize future conflict
Mediators help parents devise clear, practical, solutions that minimize future conflict. Part of the mediation process involves anticipating potential future conflict-causing situations to proactively avoid.

Mediation is skill-building
Mediation has the potential to fundamentally transform the ways people interact with each other. Mediators help people in conflict shift from angry, destructive interactions, towards more productive, respectful conversations. Managing conflict is a skill that can be learned -- in fact, mediators often also play the role of conflict coaches, helping people improve their conflict competency.

Mediation outcomes are self-determined
In mediation, parents decide their outcome, not a judge. Parents decide what a workable solution is, and this can result in a more durable agreement, again resulting in less conflict.


Mediation generally facilitates a more peaceful approach to separation and divorce with an emphasis on building a more harmonious parenting partnership, and developing better ways to communicate with one another.Importantly, every child is different, and every family is different. Mediation will not work in every case, but it has the potential to create individualized, future-focused, creative solutions that can shift and evolve to meet the needs of children and families as they grow up and circumstances change.


About the Author

Lana Besel is an Associate Family Mediator on the Mediate BC Family Mediation Roster. She has her PhD in psychology from UBC and teaches in the criminology department at KPU. Lana has a mediation background in Family, Small Claims Court and Restorative Justice. She now focuses her mediation practice on supporting families in conflict, to help them figure out their best way forward.



About this Blog

Mediate BC tries to provide valuable information to inform the public about effective conflict resolution. This blog is one of the ways we're doing that. See all the blog posts here.


Are you a conflict resolution practitioner?

We also have a Mediator Blog tailored to you. 




The thoughts and opinions expressed here may change from time to time. We consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind and a commitment to continued learning. As such, any thoughts and opinions expressed within out-of-date posts may not be the same, or even similar, to those held by contributors today.


Access to Justice

Posts related to: Access to Justice


Posts related to: Education


Posts related to: Families