Trauma, Attachment, and Parental Incarceration

The imprisonment of a parental figure has far reaching repercussions, that cannot be predicted, but forever alter a child’s life. Each child’s story and circumstance is different and must be honored, yet, the repercussion in each story begins with the loss of a parent to prison. Working for many years with children and families impacted by parental incarceration I have born witness to and found that losing a parent to prison is not a singular event; rather it is a dynamic process that unfolds throughout one’s lifetime.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente (Felitti & Anda, 2010) found that “certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life” (2014). The last question on the survey is whether or not the individual grew up with a parent in prison (Felitti & Anda, 2010). The ACE study found that the experience of parental incarceration contributes greatly to a fragmented foundation in a child’s life that leads to adverse effects in adulthood.

Understanding the expansive impact of parental incarceration on a child requires a review of the short-term effects of the witnessing of the arrest and separation of the child from the parent (Dallaire & Wilson, 2009) along with the impact on the parent child attachment due to the unavailability of the parent to the child during the incarceration (Bowlby, 1973). The arrest of a parent rarely comes as an outlying event in the landscape of the child’s life experience. However, a child witnessing his/her parent’s arrest can develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder: nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, aggressiveness, trauma re-enactment, and becoming withdrawn (Bocknek, 2009). The children in this population will demonstrate a range of internalizing and externalizing behaviors and emotions; rage, sadness, guilt, anxiety, disrupted attachment, decreased academic performance along with the symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder (Bocknek, 2009). The child is no longer able to seek comfort from that parent and access him or her when wanted and needed. The child loses his/her sense of security and his/her understanding of safety and unconditional parental access is marred. He/She no longer can cry out for mommy or daddy and get the response she needs.

Bowlby wrote (1973) that there are several instinctive behavioral systems that contribute to an individual’s survival that includes attachment and caregiving. He pointed that a key contributor to a child’s attachment is the proximity to a protective attachment figure (Bowlby, 1982). Some children impacted by parental incarceration are considered ‘lucky’ because their parent is housed at a correctional facility within a comforting distance, a distance (less than an hour away) that allows them to make consistent visits, perhaps a few times a year. Other children go years without seeing their parent because the distance, or transportation burden, is too great. In 2004, 83.6% of parents incarcerated in a federal facility were housed over 101 miles away from their children; 42.4% were farther than 500 miles away, and 60.3% of parents incarcerated in state facilities were housed over 101 miles away (Schirmer, Nellis, & Mauer 2009). During the time their parent is ‘doing time’, the attachment insecurity continues to grow for the child. The homes they are living in may not be safe, the neighborhoods may be hazardous, school attendance inconsistent, the teachers do not understand why that child ‘just won’t be good’ when no one has told them that the child is grieving the loss of their parent. The pediatrician is too expensive, the sports fee is unattainable, and the shoes from last year will have to do even though they are two sizes too small. Many children impacted by their parents incarcerated are often plunged into poverty with the loss of supportive income and/or when they are placed with financially unprepared caregivers (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). When speaking to the NAACP in July 2015, President Barack Obama declared that “We have to have the same standards for those children as we have for our own children” regarding children impacted by crime and incarcerated parents.

Parental incarceration is not a new phenomenon. As of 2010 there were approximately 2 million children who had parents in prison; this figure nearly doubles the estimate from 1991 and does not include children with parents in city and county jails (London, 2009). There are approximately 10 million children in the United States who at some point in their childhoods, have experienced a parent being incarcerated either in a prison or jail (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). However, there is no formal data on the exact numbers of children impacted. The aforementioned numbers are self-reports by the incarcerated parents through the Economic Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Many incarcerated parents may choose not to identify that they have minor children due to the stigma and concerns regarding their children becoming involved with State custody and control.

Parental incarceration is beginning to be identified as a risk marker for future maladaptation. Children with incarcerated mothers are 2.5 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves and 3 times more likely to be incarcerated as adults when compared to children whose mothers were never incarcerated (Dallaire, Zeman, & Thrash, 2015). Although incarceration is yet to be understood completely as a risk mechanism, maternal incarceration denotes other risk markers for a child (low income, housing instability) and the risk mechanism of maternal incarceration clues a unique risk for the child that commands attention.

The development of a child with an incarcerated parent is impacted by the attachment disruption. The sudden loss of a parent breaks down a child’s understanding of who is going to take care of him/her, overwhelming the child with confusion and fear. Bowlby (1973) posits that children develop less than optimal representations of relationships when attachment figures are not available due to prolonged separations or a discontinuity in caregivers occurs.  Many children impacted by parental incarceration face very quick changes in their lives and routines; changes in schools, homes, caregivers, friends, neighborhoods, and lifestyles. These sudden changes impact children’s understanding of themselves, where they fit in, and who they can trust. A child’s attachment mode determines much of his/her interaction with the rest of the world and subsequent decision making skills. Maintaining healthy attachment is an integral piece to inhibiting future poor social and emotional decision making and increasing protective factors for these children (Dallaire, 2006). The healthy attachment can be with either the substitute caregiver, incarcerated parent, or other consistent adult in the child’s life. In addition to healthy attachments, surrounding a child impacted by parental incarceration with positive social supports (connectedness) and talking about hopefulness with them can lead to an increase in their protective factors (Hagen & Myers, 2003, Hagen, Myers, & Mackintosh, 2005). Protective factors lead to an improvement in the resiliency of a child which fosters self-regulation skills that enable a child to direct their attention, manage emotions, keep track of rules, inhibit their impulses, and control their behavior in other adaptive ways. Resilience should thus be seen as a developmental process; children cannot achieve healthy development on their own, they are in need of supports from their family, communities, and child-centered policies. The complexity of these children’s lives demands equally complex service provisions.


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