What happens to children when they encounter a truly stressful situation?
Stress can cause a cascade of biological responses in the body, and it clearly exists as a trigger for a variety of health issues. But what happens to children when they encounter a truly stressful situation?


Maria Dolores Seijo Martinez and teams from the Universities of Santiago de Compostela and Vigo studied children experiencing one of the most stressful events they encounter: their parents' divorce.

This study, published in the European Journal of Education and Psychology, followed 467 children between the ages of 2 and 18; it included both males and females. The researchers compiled data on children whose parents were together versus children whose parents were divorced or divorcing.

Related: 3 Things I Learned About Dating After Divorce

Ultimately, the data gathered led researchers to conclude that children whose parents separated had double the chance of developing a variety of physical ailments due to stressors. Children of divorcees were nearly twice as likely to experience dermatological, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and neurological problems as their peers who lived with both parents.

Interestingly, while these physical issues could be traced back to stress children experienced because of a divorce, several physical issues such as respiratory issues, cardiovascular issues, and allergies were not affected. Scientists noted that hearing and visual issues were not triggered by stress either.

In an interview about the published study, Maria Dolores Seijo Martinez shared that, "It is not the break-up in itself that has negative effects on the children's health, but improper handling of the situation by the parents. This is indicated in the scientific literature and validated by our data."

Related: 5 Positive Co-Parenting Tips After Divorce

In the published study, researchers concluded that children exposed to high levels of conflict may experience not only psycho-emotional issues, but physical ailments as well. While divorce will not cause these side effects in and of itself, a highly contentious divorce, rife with animosity, dramatically increases the instances of physical ailments in children and teens.

As a study co-author, Maria Dolores Seijo Martinez recommends that parents committed to a divorce seek support to avoid the negative consequences of toxic stress.

Many programs exist to help families navigate the hurdles of divorce provided both by nonprofit entities and the family court system.