An attachment perspective on incarcerated parents and their children

Screen Shot 2013-08-06 at 8.10.45 AMCassidy, J., Poehlmann, J., & Shaver, P. (2010). An attachment perspective on incarcerated parents and their children. Attachment & Human Development, 12(4), 285-288.


It is estimated that over 3 million children are affected by having an incarcerated parent (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Western & Wildeman, 2009). One particular way in which children are negatively impacted from parental incarceration the disruption it plays in attachment relationships between parent and child. The mere physical separation, loss of contact, and changes in both quantity and quality of interactions with the parent all may affect the security of parent-child attachment (Poehlmann, 2005). Thus, Cassidy and colleagues examine the current research on attachment and incarceration to highlight the challenges, as well as demonstrate the importance of including attachment in interventions.


  • These children may face a number of risk factors in addition to attachment disruption that are associated with incarceration of a parent: (Murray & Murray, 2010)
    • poverty
    • parental and/or youth substance abuse
    • parental mental health problems
    • exposure to violence
    • maltreatment
    • unstable care-giving and schooling arrangements


  • Interventions
    • In an intervention for (non-violent) incarcerated women and their newborns, the program aimed to improve parental care-giving and foster secure infant-parent attachment. The rate of infant attachment security and maternal sensitivity at 12 months were comparable to the rate found in low-risk community samples (Borelli et al., 2010; Byrne, Goshin, & Joestl, 2010; Cassidy, 2010).
    • In a qualitative study, 15 year old children of incarcerated parents participated in a mentoring intervention program in which issues with ongoing parental contact emerged as a prevalent theme. (Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010)


Overall the findings of this review highlight the importance of considering the contextual factors that may influence attachment and other outcomes for children of incarcerated parents (i.e. poverty, substance abuse, exposure to violence, maltreatment). This study also examined the importance of considering attachment in interventions with incarcerated parents – it specifically highlighted the use of mentoring relationships as an outlet for children of incarcerated parents to discuss their issues surrounding contact with their incarcerated parent. Furthermore, mentors may be an effective intervention and can even act as a type of “attachment surrogate” for a child unable to have his/her needs met by the incarcerated parent. By understanding how attachment and other relationship processes are affected in the context of parental incarceration, social workers, psychologists, educators, attorneys, and other professionals will be more able to more effectively serve such families in their decisions and/or interventions.