New study on attachment in children with incarcerated fathers

My recent Ph.D. graduates (Drs. Cynthia Burnson, Lindsay Weymouth, and Hilary Runion) and I just published a new study on attachment in young children with incarcerated fathers. We rated young children’s attachment behaviors at home and developed a new observational measure (the Jail-Prison Observation Checklist) to rate children’s attachment behaviors and emotions during visits with jailed parents.

77 children, age 2 to 6 years, and their jailed fathers and current caregivers participated in the home visit portion of the study. 28 of these children participated in the observed jail visit.

We found that non-contact barrier (Plexiglas) visits were sometimes stressful for children, more so than in-person contact or video visits. We also found that children’s caregivers played an important role during these visits, often helping children cope and find ways of communicating with the jailed parent.

Sadly, 27% of children witnessed the father’s crime and 22% of children witnessed the father’s arrest. Most children who witnessed these events exhibited extreme distress. In many of the cases, witnessing the parent’s arrest was traumatic for the children. This does not have to be the case, as there are protocols for law enforcement professionals to use to protect children when parents are arrested. Children who witnessed the parent’s arrest or crime were more likely to have insecure attachments to their caregivers.

The young children of jailed fathers were at risk for having insecure attachments to their caregivers, similar to other studies with clinical samples. Also like studies with children whose parents are not incarcerated, we found that children were more likely to have secure attachments when caregivers were more sensitive and responsive to children at home and when they provided more stimulating, responsive, learning-oriented environments.

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