Children of imprisoned mothers generally have insecure relationships with their mothers and caregivers, according to a new study published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development. However, the children were more likely to have secure relationships with their caregivers if they were living in a stable environment.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, assessed how children thought and felt about their close relationships and family experiences in 54 children ranging from 2 ½ to 7 ½ years old whose mothers were imprisoned. Most of the children lived with their grandparents. The researchers interviewed the incarcerated mothers, their children and the children's caregivers.
The goal was to examine family experiences associated with children's positive relationships despite the risks associated with maternal incarceration, as well as to examine children's emotional reactions to separating from their mothers during imprisonment, and how those reactions related to children's attachment relationships.
The study is important, notes author Julie Poehlmann, PhD, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, because children of imprisoned mothers, a growing but understudied group, experience significant disruptions in their care. Over 1.3 million children in the U.S., most under 10 years old, have mothers under correctional supervision.
"Lengthy parent-child separations and changes in children's living arrangements often occur when mothers go to prison," noted Dr. Pohlmann. While several recent journal articles have suggested that such disruptions would make it quite difficult for children to develop healthy attachment relationships, this is the first study to empirically investigate the quality of such relationships.
The researchers found that 63 percent of the children had insecure relationships with their mothers and caregivers. The more secure the children's caregiving relationships, however, the more likely the children were to react to the separation from their mother with sadness rather than anger. Overall, researchers found, children's reactions to the separation from their mothers typically included sadness, worry, confusion, anger, loneliness, fear, sleep problems, and developmental regressions.
"These findings add to the growing literature linking disruptive family relationship experiences with problematic attachment relationships," said Dr. Poehlmann. "They also suggest processes associated with potential resilience in children of incarcerated mothers, and highlight the complex needs for support in families affected by maternal imprisonment, especially efforts to promote stable, continuous placements for children. The study also underscores the importance of longitudinal research with this growing but understudied group."