A parent’s guide to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and parental separation

By 24th June 2022 Blog

You may have heard the term ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ or ACEs being used in discussions about mental health and wellbeing, particularly the long term affects for children into adulthood. While the term is used widely in medical, educational and policy discussions, for most people, especially parents, there can be little understanding of ACEs and the impact they can have.

This blog explores everything you as a separated/estranged parent may find useful when considering ACEs in the context of your family.

What are ACEs?

ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are stressful or traumatic events that occur in childhood, from before birth through to adolescence. ACEs include experiences where the child is harmed or experiences that affect the environment they live in. A study by Billis in 2016 identified the following as ACES:

  1. Verbal abuse
  2. Physical abuse
  3. Sexual abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Parental separation
  7. Domestic violence
  8. Mental ill health
  9. Alcohol or drug misuse

The Safeguarding Board NI has adopted this list of ACEs into its guidance.

What impact can ACEs have on children?

The first large research study that brought ACEs to the forefront was published by Felliti and team of researchers in 1998. The study explored the association between negative childhood experiences and health and wellbeing in later life in over 17,000 people. It was the first of its kind to look at experience of neglect, abuse and family circumstances. The findings clearly showed that the more exposure to ACEs in childhood, the greater risk of developing a range of mental, social and physical health issues in adulthood.

The original ACE study has been replicated time and time again, all over the world, producing similar results – negative childhood experiences impact children into adulthood. This knowledge has impacted policy and practice change at all levels.

Why is parental separation an ACE?

You many think that many of the identified ACEs, such as abuse, neglect and violence, are recognisable as causing long term negative effects in the life of a child, but the impact of a poorly managed parental separation can have long term negative effects on children, impacting on their mental health and wellbeing into adulthood.

When a parental relationship breaks down there is often conflict between the separated parents, this can result in anger, stress and tension. This can impact on children, particularly if their relationship with a parent is affected. Additionally, loss of contact with one parent after separation, ongoing parental animosity and conflict and the upheaval of their home environment can be extremely stressful and emotionally painful for children.

Can the long term affects of ACEs be prevented?

It is important to remember that the negative consequences of ACEs can be lessened with support, care and suitable intervention. Through positive relationships, children learn to develop crucial coping skills and adopt healthy ways to handle stress. Even if a child has experienced adversity this experience can help them develop resilience which can last into later life.

Creating and sustaining safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for children can prevent many of the negative effects of ACEs and can help children reach their full health and life potential.

In the case of parental separation, parents should:

  • Ensure that the children know they still have two parents who love them and will continue to care for them and spend time with them.
  • Protect children from adult worries and responsibilities but be open to talk and answer questions about what is happening.
  • Be clear that the responsibility for what is happening is the parents’ and not the children.
  • Make time to spend with the children and be reliable and consistent about arrangements to see them.
  • Carry on with the usual activities and routines, like seeing friends and members of the extended family.
  • Be careful not pull children into the conflict.
  • Do not denigrate the other parent in the presence of the child

How can family mediation help?

Separation and divorce are an unplanned and unfortunate part of life, amongst the conflict and tension it can be easy to lose sight of the impact separation can have on your children. Even though you are no longer a couple you will always be parents.

Family mediation can help separated parents manage conflict and empower you to develop more effective means of communication. The process enables parents to focus on their children though the development of a co-parenting plan that benefits everyone involved. Engaging, voluntarily with the process of family mediation, rather than defaulting to the legal process,  enables parents to negotiate a plan with the focus on the needs and wellbeing of their children.  Parent are empowered to  ensure that future plans to co-parent are in the best interests of their children.  In some cases, your child may be able to meet with a specialist, child inclusive mediator, to allow their voice to be heard. Find out more here.

Useful resources


  • ‘Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids’, Christina McGhee 
  • ‘Help Your Children Cope With Your Divorce’, Paula Hill

  • ‘The Guide for Separated Parents: Putting Your Children First’, Karen and Nick Woodall