Attachment Behaviors in Children with Incarcerated Fathers

Publication Date
August 30, 2018

Having a parent in jail or prison can harm children’s emotional and physical wellbeing, so it is important to support the more than five million U.S. children who will have an incarcerated parent (most often a father) at some point in their childhood. 

One way to support these children is to help improve their relationships with their incarcerated parent and non-incarcerated parent or caregiver. A 2017 study looked at young children’s attachment behavior when they had an incarcerated father. Attachment behavior shows how secure a child’s emotional connection to a caregiver is. To assess attachment behavior, researchers watched 77 children and their caregivers play together at home. Researchers also watched 28 of the children visit their incarcerated fathers.

On average, the children in this study (who all had an incarcerated parent) were less securely attached to their home caregiver (usually the mother or grandmother) than children in the general population. The researchers found that the following experiences may relate to children’s attachment behavior:

Sensitive caregiving
Children with sensitive and responsive caregivers at home were more likely to have secure attachments to that caregiver. Importantly, this study also found that sensitive caregiving may protect against the link between fathers’ incarceration for violence crimes and children’s less secure attachment. 

Witnessing the crime or arrest
Witnessing a father’s violent or nonviolent crime or arrest can be stressful for children. Home caregivers reported on their children’s experiences with these events:

  • 27% said their child witnessed the father’s crime.
  • 52% of those whose child witnessed the crime said the child showed “extreme distress” as a result.
  • 22% said their child witnessed the father’s arrest.
  • 59% of those whose child witnessed the arrest said the child showed “extreme distress” as a result.

Children who showed distress from witnessing the crime or arrest were less likely to have secure attachments to their home caregivers than children who did not witness these events.

Type of visit
Children visited their father through Plexiglas, through video, or face to face. The children who visited their father through Plexiglas had the most negative behavior during the visit. They were more fearful, sad, confused, whiny, and angry than children who visited in other ways. 

Father’s alcohol use
The study found that children whose incarcerated father abused alcohol were less securely attached to their home caregiver than other children. 

How can practitioners help?
Practitioners can give families information about being emotionally available and sensitive with young children when a parent is incarcerated and/or has problems like drug and alcohol abuse. Sensitive caregiving can reduce the stress of experiences like having a father commit a violent crime. Sesame Street offers informational resources for incarcerated parents and for home caregivers.

Practitioners can work with families to decide the best way for their child to visit the incarcerated parent. When possible, video or face-to-face meetings may be less stressful than talking through Plexiglas.

Practitioners can also advocate for police to be better trained to interact with children. When police act appropriately, witnessing a parent’s arrest may be less traumatic.

For more information, listen to an interview with the study’s lead author.

National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse

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