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'Toxic stress' is a serious risk for children

How many adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, has your child experienced? If you're in a troubled marriage or going through a contentious divorce, it may be enough to actually make your child sick.

Experts are trying hard to educate the public about the way that physical illness and stress connect. While a certain amount of stress is normal -- or even healthy -- so-called "toxic stress" has a decidedly unhealthy effect on human beings. Children may be particularly vulnerable because of their youth, lack of control over most situations and still-developing bodies.

Researchers have been studying the effects of adverse childhood experiences and how those connect to problems in adulthood with mental health issues and addiction for quite a while. Now, however, they've also begun to link ACEs to lifelong physical problems.

ACEs involve many different kinds of negative events in a child's life -- but divorce and familial violence are high on the list. The more a child is exposed to ACEs, the more toxic the stress from those events can become.

As a result of constantly having their physical stress response activated, children can eventually develop a host of problems -- ranging from learning disabilities and depression to physical conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. Researchers say that children exposed to the most extreme versions of toxic stress will even grow up to have a life expectancy that's reduced by as much as 20 years.

Fortunately, you aren't helpless in this situation -- even if you're currently in a bad situation. If your marriage is troubled with violence, addiction, or even constant arguing -- it may be time to think about a divorce if only to remove your children from the situation. If you're going through a divorce, trying to keep the heated arguments in front of the kids to a minimum and insulating them against the strife between you and your spouse is key.

In all cases, children are less likely to experience toxic stress when they get adequate amounts of sleep and plenty of exercise. Counseling, even at a young age, can also help. The most important thing you can do, however, may be to focus on creating strong emotional connections with your children and providing the most nurturing care you can.

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