Volume 76, Issue 3 p. 679-696

Representations of Attachment Relationships in Children of Incarcerated Mothers

Julie Poehlmann

Julie Poehlmann

University of Wisconsin–Madison

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First published: 13 May 2005
Citations: 197
concerning this article should be addressed to Julie Poehlmann, University of Wisconsin, 1430 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706. Electronic mail may be sent to [email protected].

This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (MH61559 and HD07489) and the University of Wisconsin. Special thanks to Inge Bretherton for her assistance with the Attachment Story Completion Task; to Mary Ann Eaton and Jackie McRae for facilitating recruitment of incarcerated mothers; to Robert Kindermann and Jennifer Park for assistance with data collection; to Katie Bjerke, Beth Huennekens, Teresa Clark, and Jenna Behm for transcribing and coding children's narratives; to Kristin Abrahamson and Rebecca Seifert for summarizing interview data; and to the children and families who generously gave of their time to participate in the study.


Representations of attachment relationships were assessed in 54 children ages 2.5 to 7.5 years whose mothers were currently incarcerated. Consistent with their high-risk status, most (63%) children were classified as having insecure relationships with mothers and caregivers. Secure relationships were more likely when children lived in a stable caregiving situation, when children reacted to separation from the mother with sadness rather than anger, and when children were older. Common reactions to initial separation included sadness, worry, confusion, anger, loneliness, sleep problems, and developmental regressions. Results highlight need for support in families affected by maternal imprisonment, especially efforts to promote stable, continuous placements for children, in addition to underscoring the importance of longitudinal research with this growing but understudied group.