Study depicts peril, hope for children of jailed mothers

May 19, 2005

MADISON -- For a young child whose mother is imprisoned, life's prospects are predictably grim.

But a new study, the first empirical examination of the attachment relationships of young children whose mothers are in prison, suggests that simple interventions may prevent a downward social spiral for a rapidly growing and vulnerable population.

The critical finding of the study, published in the current issue (May/June 2005) of the journal Child Development, is that children placed in a stable home environment fare far better than those bounced from one home to another.

Children placed in a single, secure setting are "much better off" than those who are not in a stable caregiving situation, says study author Julie Poehlmann, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of human development and family studies and a researcher at the Waisman Center. "Almost one-third of the kids in this study are doing well in their relationships."

The study examined a sample of 54 children between two and eight years of age whose mothers were incarcerated in minimum and medium security state prisons in Wisconsin. Many of the women were drug offenders and, by and large, fit a national profile of female offenders. The families of the women and children, according to Poehlmann, also fit a national profile, with many of the children cared for by grandparents.

"This population is increasing exponentially," Poehlmann notes, "but the study shows that there are things that we can do, that these children are not doomed to negative outcomes. They are not hopeless."

Poehlmann says efforts to promote stability in caregiving situations for young children and the families of incarcerated mothers, especially in the initial period following mothers' imprisonment, may go far in improving their life prospects and avoiding family dissolution and distress.

Children who fared poorly were those unable to settle into a stable home life with relatives or foster families. They often exhibited detachment, intense ambivalence, violence and disorganization in the way they felt and thought about relationships. All of these behaviors are hallmarks of insecurity, Poehlmann explains.

"Kids who reacted with anger (to separation from the mother) were more likely to have negative relationships. Those are feelings that kids and caregivers don't always understand," says Poehlmann.

Many of the children experience eating and sleeping problems, and some exhibit developmental regression, according to the results of the three-year National Institutes of Health-funded study.

"These are really young kids, and many of them are very confused. Their families recognize this and they try different strategies to help them cope."

Explaining a mother's absence is difficult. Some tell the child their mother is away at school or college, some say nothing, and others are more straightforward, telling very young children that "mom is having a big time out."

Families that gave children simple, honest answers tended to have better outcomes, Poehlmann says. Still, confusion among children is common and intense feelings of sadness prevail. But children whose emotions were more sad than angry tended to do better.

"Kids who expressed sadness were more likely to do well. Sadness sometimes elicits nurturing behavior (from caregivers)."

Poehlmann says the study is important because no similar research exists, and as the prison population in the United States continues to grow, the number of at-risk children will soar.

The study was difficult to conduct as many of the families in the study were transient and did not have phones.

Among the families, many of whose grandmothers also had criminal pasts, there were high rates of poverty, substance abuse and frequent moves.

The new research, Poehlmann stresses, has important implications for developing programs and strategies to help a vulnerable population succeed in life. "These children have so much stacked against them, but remarkably one-third of them seem to be doing well," she says.

The study, she argues, suggests that young children and families affected by maternal incarceration may benefit from efforts to promote stability in the caregiving situation and provide emotional and behavioral support to children, particularly in the initial period following imprisonment.
-end-
-- Terry Devitt (608) 262-8282, trdevitt@wisc.edu

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Relationships Articles from Brightsurf:

Gorilla relationships limited in large groups
Mountain gorillas that live in oversized groups may have to limit the number of strong social relationships they form, new research suggests.

Electronic surveillance in couple relationships
Impaired intimacy, satisfaction, and infidelity in a romantic relationship can fuel Interpersonal Electronic Surveillance (IES).

'Feeling obligated' can impact relationships during social distancing
In a time where many are practicing 'social distancing' from the outside world, people are relying on their immediate social circles more than usual.

We can make predictions about relationships - but is this necessary?
'Predictions as to the longevity of a relationship are definitely possible,' says Dr Christine Finn from the University of Jena.

Disruptions of salesperson-customer relationships. Is that always bad?
Implications from sales relationship disruptions are intricate and can be revitalizing.

Do open relationships really work?
Open relationships typically describe couples in which the partners have agreed on sexual activity with someone other than their primary romantic partner, while maintaining the couple bond.

The 7 types of sugar daddy relationships
University of Colorado Denver researcher looks inside 48 sugar daddy relationships to better understand the different types of dynamics, break down the typical stereotype(s) and better understand how these relationships work in the United States.

Positive relationships boost self-esteem, and vice versa
Does having close friends boost your self-esteem, or does having high self-esteem influence the quality of your friendships?

Strong family relationships may help with asthma outcomes for children
Positive family relationships might help youth to maintain good asthma management behaviors even in the face of difficult neighborhood conditions, according to a new Northwestern University study.

In romantic relationships, people do indeed have a 'type'
Researchers at the University of Toronto show that people do indeed have a 'type' when it comes to dating, and that despite best intentions to date outside that type -- for example, after a bad relationship -- some will gravitate to similar partners.

Read More: Relationships News and Relationships Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.