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What about the kids? (Understanding the ACEs of divorce)

A family doc and trauma-informed-practice advocate answers our questions about how to minimize the impact of divorce on our kids.

We recently sat down over Zoom with Calgary-based family doc Dr. Teresa Killam to discuss how to parent our kids effectively and compassionately through separation and divorce. An edited version of our conversation is provided here.

“Experiences in childhood are just one part of a person’s life story. There are many ways to heal throughout one’s life.”

~ From aces aware, the California Surgeon General’s Clinical Advisory Committee: Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire for Adults

unhitch: Teresa, let’s start with your expertise in trauma-informed care as a family doctor. Can you tell us about your work with ACEs?

TK: ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and they are considered any negative, stressful or traumatizing events that occur before the age of 18 and that can lead to different health risks across a person’s lifespan.

I use ACE scores in my practice through the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative as part of trauma-informed care, and I teach this to student doctors at the medical school here.

It really boils down to understanding the links between brain science and mental and physical health, which is a fairly new approach in the history of medicine. It’s relatively complex and something we’re still learning about.

The way we tell people to think about ACEs is to picture a teeter totter.

On one end, you have negative adverse events or trauma, on the other end you have positive supports and mitigating factors.

The base, the middle, is the fulcrum. That’s where things pivot. It’s your DNA, your epigenetics. The nature and the nurture of the teeter totter. For example, some people are naturally less resilient, while others have more exposure to high-adversity situations or trauma.

ACEs scores help us to figure out which way your teeter totter is leaning, and then we can adjust your fulcrum, or help you do this for your kids, by adding more supports to balance it all out.

unhitch: Are there take-aways from this project that relate to separation and divorce?

TK: Absolutely yes.

We do consider separation and divorce as part of ACEs scores, and depending on how much adversity is involved, you would want to get more help and add more supports to minimize any negative impacts on children involved.

ACEs is all about building resiliency in childhood to reduce negative outcomes on our health as we age, and so this is really relevant to anyone parenting their kids through separation and divorce.

unhitch: Are there specific tips for reducing negative outcomes for kids whose parents are going through separation and divorce?

TK Yes there are, definitely!

In divorce, there is a transition that kids have to adapt to, but it’s not actually considered a full ACEs score, so that is something to take heart in as a parent I think, that it is not generally considered a basis for severe childhood trauma.