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Center for Healthy Minds

University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Supporting Kids of Incarcerated Parents

How can we help children deal with the emotional strain while their parents are incarcerated?

In the United States, more than 5 million children – 1 in 14 – have incarcerated parents. As a result, coping with the effects of having an incarcerated parent is a major part of many children’s lives.

One Center for Healthy Minds faculty member is rethinking how we help kids of incarcerated parents in wide-reaching ways – from Muppets to policy.

Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, the Dorothy A. O’Brien Professor of Human Ecology at UW–Madison, believes interventions with children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers can buffer stress and promote resilience in children.

Alex

She served as an advisor to Sesame Street for 4 years on their Emmy-nominated initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, which helped bring a new Muppet to life. “Alex,” who had an incarcerated father, learned how to navigate visiting and relating to his father and explaining the situation to his friends. The character, shared with millions of young viewers, experienced what a visit with an incarcerated parent might look like, how friends can support their friends who have incarcerated parents, and how to deal with “big feelings” associated with such a challenge.

“Additionally Sesame Street chose 10 pilot states for deep dissemination of the parental incarceration materials. One of the states was Wisconsin,” says Poehlmann-Tynan, “The Wisconsin Department of Corrections used the materials in their visiting rooms for children and their caregivers and for some of their groups of incarcerated individuals.”

Though the physical kits are no longer in production, all materials for Alex and the incarceration initiative can still be accessed online.

Poelmann Muppets

Poehlmann-Tynan’s work ventures into new territory, as previous research surrounding incarceration focused on the individuals incarcerated and paid little attention to the well-being of caregivers or children. Interventions for both incarcerated parents have yielded mixed results, and there’s been little evidence to guide families in how to navigate these challenging situations with young children. Few interventions for affected children exist.

“There are a lot of advocates who say children shouldn’t visit their incarcerated parents because it’s too traumatic. Other advocates say all children should visit,” Poehlmann-Tynan says. “As a scientist, I wondered, What does the research say? There was not a single study focusing on how children do while visiting an incarcerated parent.”

This lack of research motivated Poehlmann-Tynan to conduct the first observational study of children visiting their parents in corrections facilities, and how she is experimenting with interventions intended to help children and their caregivers cope with stress.

Practices include short-term mind-body stress reduction interventions that could potentially help children decrease their stress as they walk into a corrections facility to visit their parent as well as when they leave their home environment for school and other activities.

“As a scientist, I wondered, What does the research say? There was not a single study focusing on how children do while visiting an incarcerated parent.” 

Julie Poehlmann-Tynan

Though her work with mindfulness practices is ongoing, her previous research findings suggest that children have a more positive experience when they can physically interact with their parent and do things like sit on the parent’s lap or give the parent a hug. These children also display higher levels of distress when they interact with a parent through Plexiglas or some kind of barrier.

In the absence of physically visiting a parent, Poehlmann-Tynan discovered that writing letters can have a positive benefit as do video calls. Federal and county jails are taking her findings and beginning to develop in-home video platforms so children can stay at home and talk to their parents through a secure video call. She says in-home calls are beneficial because then the kids can be comfortable at home in a more normalized environment.

Outside of the home, the science points to the impact of conditions and attributes of individuals, families and communities that can help children cope more effectively. Providing children of incarcerated parents with stable living arrangements with positive, stimulating and educationally supportive home environments generally improves children’s cognitive and emotional well-being – a relevant discovery since these children are more likely to have unstable placements relative to the general population.

Poehlmann-Tynan hopes her research continues to spark a larger, nationwide policy conversation about how children interact with the criminal justice system, whether it’s updating standards to making visits more child-friendly or exploring alternatives to incarceration. She is collaborating with other researchers who are working on an initiative called Safeguarding Children of Incarcerated Parents to develop protocols for healthy parent-child visits during parental incarceration.

She intends for her work to reach policymakers, who can strengthen antipoverty measures and programs aimed to provide support to economically disadvantaged families and families of color, who experience parental incarceration at higher rates.

- Brita Larson