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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.

The key is reducing or minimizing the toxicity for kids. How much toxicity, and for how long, are your kids exposed? These are what we consider the negative ACEs, the red boxes. How much and how long.

The goal is less anger, less drama, less fighting to reduce the impact of the divorce itself, to offset any red boxes for your kids. And all it takes is just one trusted, loving adult to be a buffer against a red box.

That can be a parent, one teacher, one coach, one aunt or uncle. Kids need caring, consistent support to mitigate the extent of the impact of a trauma, but this can be done with one adult. So think about how much we can offset the impact of separation and divorce for children when there is more than one trusting, loving adult.

unhitch: Women ask us, “Will my kids be okay after this?” In your experience, will they?

TK: The answer is yes, they absolutely can be.

Look, parenting is hard! And parenting is hard in a pandemic, with social media and screen time and isolation. Parenting through a big life event or transition, like divorce, that’s hard too. But we can get ourselves and our kids through all of these things.

It’s about resiliency. Teaching our kids, by modeling it ourselves, that just because we’re uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean we can’t tolerate it. We teach them to express they are having a tough time, but also believe that they can handle it and get through it. We can say, “We’re just having a bad day, and we can cope.”

Optimism and gratitude do help kids build neural pathways for resilience, but it’s not about sugar-coating things. Resilience is not saying that everything is great or everything will be easy. It’s really about asking ourselves, “What can we do when it’s hard?”

And when we see kids who have at least one adult that loves them, hugs them, and repeatedly tells them that they believe in them, then we don’t see the same negative impacts in these children.

unhitch: What about high-conflict situations, where one parent is not doing anything to reduce harm, and in many cases, causing emotional harm?

TK: We often say that it is up to the parents as the adults to try to mitigate the negative impacts on their kids, but we know this isn’t always possible.

So when one parent is not able to be a mitigating factor, your kids will benefit from having an extra person. Maybe a beloved teacher, a counsellor, or a coach. These are people who take them by the shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “I believe in you, I believe in your dreams and talents, I love you and I support you.”

These are people who show up, are reliable, and are loving.

So that is one way a parent on their own can help their kids in a tough situation with a difficult ex.

The other way is building resiliency through skills vs. trauma therapy.

Some people just want to function better, to have coping strategies, and not relive their trauma through talk therapy. This is okay, and perfectly valid. Sometimes we need the coping strategies and to be functioning before we would even go back and treat the trauma.

So for kids in a high-conflict divorce situation, the coping skills are easily taught, and helps protect their neural pathways from cortisol and other stress hormones.

Coping strategies like exercise, interpersonal relationship skills, mindfulness, practicing gratitude. These things change your neural pathways, and activate your parasympathetic nervous system to mitigate stress.

It’s like nurturing your nervous system: do yoga with your kids, do box breathing before you go to sleep. Try the technique of naming out loud three things you see, three things you feel, three things you hear to ground yourselves. It’s tactile, feeling your feet on the floor, the cloth of the couch etc.

Just 15 seconds of this kind of nurturing can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and it’s a skill we all can learn. All of us, but especially kids, in stressful situations need extra help to learn these coping skills.

Doctors have a role to play too, and that is the basis of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, making sure that we’re better trained to support families going through these types of adverse events.

unhitch: Is there anything else that you are reading or doing right now as a woman, a mom and a doctor, that you would recommend to our community?

TK: I’m currently reading Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown and I love it, my whole family loves it. People need to read this and sit with it. I’d just recommend anything Brené Brown really.

I think my favourite takeaway from her is the idea that we can hold two conflicting thoughts in our minds at the same time. This is at the heart of resiliency, and so we can teach ourselves, and our kids, to say “This is hard, I don’t like this, but I can also still find moments of joy and something good in my day.”

Actually, I also have started doing Peleton workouts at home, and one of my favourite instructors, Jess Sims, puts it this way: “You can be a work in progress and a masterpiece at the same time.”

I love that one too.

More resources for parenting kids through divorce

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Other resources

Watch Dr. Teresa Killam explain ACEs and describe how the Brain Story project has changed her practice.

Read this CBC news article on how we can use ACEs scores to evaluate the impacts of childhood trauma such as divorce.

Visit the Alberta Family Wellness website to learn more about ACEs and how to foster resiliency in kids.


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