Divorce can cause toxic stress in children


If you’re like many Californians, you probably didn’t know that as of last month the state has its first surgeon general. We’re one of just four states with someone in this position. Our new surgeon general is a San Francisco-based pediatrician named Nadine Burke Harris. The mother of four sons has already announced that her top priority is diagnosing and treating toxic stress in children.

Burke Harris has been an advocate for toxic stress or trauma screenings of children from low-income homes for signs of stress caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACES). In one of these screenings, parents report how many out of 10 designated issues their child has experienced. These include physical, emotional or sexual abuse and physical or emotional neglect. They also include things that have happened to one or both parents, including substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness, domestic violence and separation or divorce.

According to Burke Harris, medical providers too often neglect to consider the impact of a traumatic event on children’s physical health. However, she says that when children experience high levels of stress, their “stress thermostat” breaks. This causes added hormonal activity. She says, “The impact of early adversity gets under our skin in a way that can be invisible, but can have profound impacts on health and development over a lifetime.”

Burke Harris would like to see all pediatricians ask which of these traumatic events a child has experienced — particularly if the child is experiencing a health issue or not developing properly. This, she says, can help them find a possible toxic stress component to a child’s physical problems more quickly. She says, “It’s like catching Stage 1 cancer versus Stage 4. If we can diagnose at Stage 1, you can treat far more people with the same resources.”

Children don’t have to come from an abusive home or grow up in poverty to experience one or more ACES. Burke Harris says, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hasn’t experienced or knows someone who has experienced significant adverse childhood experiences.”

No matter how conscientious parents are about minimizing the impact of their divorce on their kids, they can’t always control how their kids will react to it. It’s important to let your kids’ pediatrician know about the divorce, so they have that vital piece of information when diagnosing and treating them.

2022-04-01T13:12:07+00:0018 Mar 2019|
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