Resilience in Children with Incarcerated Parents

Researchers have devoted considerable attention to investigating factors that negatively affect children’s outcomes. This is with good cause. Gaining information about the different risks and adverse experiences that threaten children’s health, development, and cognitive and social skills may contribute greatly to targeting interventions at those factors that have the greatest impact across cases. Yet, we know also that some children weather the storms of life better than others. This would suggest that an important complement to the study of risks are those efforts to identify assets experienced by children that help to mitigate the effects of childhood adversity. In her recently completed dissertation research, Cynthia Burnson studied such factors in relation to the impact of a parent’s incarceration for children ages 2 to 6.

Burnson’s research focuses on attachment between children and caregivers as protective factors. Parental incarceration may affect children in many different forms. For example, it may involve a loss of income for the household where the child resides, which might influence the availability of food, safe housing, or other important resources. It may also disrupt attachment processes themselves in ways that contribute to a child’s negative behavioral or emotional outcomes. Yet, features of attachment are not only vulnerable to the influence of adversity and risk, but may instead act as buffers against it.

In her study, Burnson analyzes the quality of caregiving and children’s ability to self-regulate as protective factors in two different ways: first, she looks at how factors such as caregiver stress, income, and a child’s ability to self-regulate associate with child outcomes. Next, she identifies the children in the study who did well despite adversity, then looks for patterns in their shared attributes. Both approaches turned up evidence to support the theory that lower caregiver stress and higher levels of a child’s ability to self-regulate mitigate the effect of risk and adversity on children’s outward-oriented behaviors and social competence. The data only capture a single point in time, so we cannot be sure of what is causing what, but Burnson’s study makes a strong contribution by providing evidence that signs of secure attachment tend to come with better outcomes for a child facing the diverse challenges posed by their parent’s incarceration.

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