The Role of Resilience for Kids With Incarcerated Parents

July 8, 2013 | Julie Poehlmann, PhD, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Dr. Julie Poehlmann (right) and colleague Dr. Rebecca Schlafer with Alex, Sesame Street’s newest Muppet, who has an incarcerated father.

Dr. Julie Poehlmann (right) and colleague Dr. Rebecca Schlafer with Alex, Sesame Street’s newest Muppet, who has an incarcerated father.

When I was working as a psychologist in a children’s clinic in upstate New York in the late 1990s, I started receiving referrals to assess young children whose mothers were in jail or prison. Because I am trained as a scientist-practitioner, and I didn’t know anything about these kids, I went to the scholarly literature to find out what was known. I was quite shocked—we knew that the numbers of children with incarcerated parents were rising dramatically but there was no developmental research on this topic! At that point, I vowed that if I had an academic position in the future, I would study these kids and try to convince other researchers to study them. Now, 15 years later, much more is known about children with incarcerated parents, although there are still many unanswered questions.

We now know that about 1.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison in the US on any given day, and that at least a million more have a parent in jail. Those figures do not include children who had an incarcerated parent in the past or will in the future. We also know that most of children of incarcerated parents experience multiple risk factors including poverty, exposure to violence, and family instability, and that the kids experience a higher likelihood of experiencing behavioral, developmental, and academic problems than other children. However, there is no definitive answer regarding whether parental incarceration is the direct cause of children’s problems or whether the co-occurring risk factors cause children’s problems. In any case, parental incarceration is an opportunity to identify very high risk, underserved children and to intervene to help them succeed despite the risks.

One reason that my work is different from others who work with children of incarcerated parents and their families is that I emphasize resilience, or the processes involved when high-risk kids develop competence and do well in their lives. This information is critical for knowing how to support positive development in children and families as well as developing intervention programs. One example of the resilience approach with children of incarcerated parents is a recently published monograph of the Society for Research in Child Development that I edited.

The Sesame Street materials for children of incarcerated parents that were just released are part of a resilience initiative. As a content advisor for the materials, I am really excited that the materials emphasize positive ways that children can connect with their caregivers and parents and that we have provided families with suggestions for how to talk about the situation in a developmentally appropriate way. Young children should not be held responsible for what their parents have done and, like all children, they need love, stability, and support.

My colleague, Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, at the University of Minnesota and I just received a grant to help evaluate the Sesame Street materials for young children with jailed parents. We will be starting the study this summer, especially focusing on how the materials help prepare children for visits to jails and how the materials for caregivers may address child-related health inequities in this high-risk group. The study is an extension of my current research funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, focusing on the development and well-being of young children with parents in jail.

Julie Poehlmann is professor and chair of Human Development and Family Studies at University of WisconsinMadison. She also directs the Center for Child & Family Well-being in the School of Human Ecology. She earned her MS and PhD degrees in child clinical psychology at Syracuse University and is a licensed psychologist in Wisconsin and New York. Dr. Poehlmann studies and intervenes with high-risk children and their families.