An Exploratory Study Examining Risk Communication among Adolescent Children, Their Incarcerated Mothers, and Their Caregivers

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DOI: 10.1353/hpu.2016.0050
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Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers (ACIM) are typically left in the care of adults (primary caregivers) who play a crucial role in children’s care and guidance, as well as in the facilitation of contact and communication with incarcerated mothers. The purpose of this study was to explore the nature of relationships and communication among adolescent children of incarcerated mothers, primary caregivers, and incarcerated mothers using pilot data. Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with youth aged 12-17 (n=7) and caregivers (n=6) recruited through a non-profit organization working with incarcerated mothers and their children. Incarcerated mothers and primary caregivers represent an important family unit for ACIMs and may play a role in preventing risk behavior. A conceptual framework is offered for further consideration of mother and caregiver communication with youth and youth risk.
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© Meharry Medical College Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved 27 (2016): 101–119.
An Exploratory Study Examining Risk
Communication among Adolescent Children, eir
Incarcerated Mothers, and eir Caregivers
Alyssa G. Robillard, PhD
Rhonda C. Holliday, PhD
Dana D. DeHart, PhD
Kaleea Lewis, MSPH
Yamisha Rutherford, BS
Ndidi N. Amutah, PhD, MPH, CHES
Abstract: Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers (ACIM) are typically le in the care
of adults (primary caregivers) who play a crucial role in childrens care and guidance, as
well as in the facilitation of contact and communication with incarcerated mothers. e
purpose of this study was to explore the nature of relationships and communication among
adolescent children of incarcerated mothers, primary caregivers, and incarcerated mothers
using pilot data. Semi- structured individual interviews were conducted with youth aged
12– 17 (n=7) and caregivers (n=6) recruited through a non- prot organization working
with incarcerated mothers and their children. Incarcerated mothers and primary caregiv-
ers represent an important family unit for ACIMs and may play a role in preventing risk
behavior. A conceptual framework is oered for further consideration of mother and
caregiver communication with youth and youth risk.
Key words: Prisoners, mothers, adolescents, caregivers, prevention.
Incarceration rates in the United States are the highest in the world.1 Although most
individuals housed in correctional facilities are male, incarceration rates for women
and girls in the U.S. rank rst in the world. With nearly 1.5 million prisoners under
the jurisdiction of state and federal authorities in the United States in 2010, about
ALYSSA G. ROBILLARD is an Associate Professor with the University of South Carolina Arnold School
of Public Health, Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior in Columbia, SC. RHONDA C. HOL-
LIDAY is a Research Associate Professor with Morehouse School of Medicines Department of Community
Health and Preventive Medicine in East Point, GA. DANA D. DEHART is a Research Professor and
Assistant Dean for Research with the University of South Carolina College of Social Work. KALEEA
LEWIS is a Research Associate and Doctoral Student with the University of South Carolina Arnold
School of Public Health, Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior. YAMISHA RUTHERFORD is a
Research Associate and Project Coordinator with the George Washington University Cancer Institute in
Washington, DC. NDIDI N. AMUTAH is an Assistant Professor at Montclair State University, College
of Education and Human Services, Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences in Montclair, NJ.
Please address correspondence to Alyssa G. Robillard, PhD; phone: (803) 777‑8462; fax: (803) 777‑6290;
email: .edu.
102 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
7% of these (104,629) were women.2 A third of women held in penal institutions
throughout the world are in the United States.3 Further, Black women and Latinas
are disproportionately represented among female inmates.4 A majority of women are
incarcerated for non- violent oenses (such as drug oenses and property crimes)2
and many female oenders struggle with substance use disorders, mental illness, and
posttraumatic stress disorder.5
Existing research on children of incarcerated mothers. A large proportion of women
in prison leave children behind when incarcerated. Over half of women in state (63%)
and federal (56%) prisons are mothers of minor children, with 53% between the ages of
10– 17.6 One- third of mothers reported having more than one child, and approximately
61% lived with their children prior to incarceration.6 Incarcerated women typically
provide the majority of care for their minor children (77%), including nancial support
(52%), and their incarceration can leave a void in the lives of their minor children.6 e
exponential growth in rates of incarceration from the 1980s to 2008 (when rates peaked)
increased the number of women in prison and nearly doubled the number of children
with a mother in prison.6 Minor children commonly end up in the care of family or
friends who assume responsibility for them. Grandparents (typically grandmothers)
are most oen the caregivers of children of incarcerated mothers (44.9%), followed by
the other parent (37%), or other relatives or friends (30.6%); 11% of the children are
placed in foster care.6 ese caregivers become responsible for the child’s development
and well- being and play a crucial role in facilitating contact and communication with
incarcerated mothers.
e nature of the relationship between incarcerated mothers and their childrens
caregivers can range from non- existent to supportive to contentious. Conict in these
relationships can result in decreased contact of mothers with their children.7 e cor-
responding stress associated with limited contact may be linked to higher levels of
anxiety and depression among incarcerated mothers8 and may also have a direct or
indirect impact on the child. Kinship caregivers (and other caregivers as well) become
caregivers at considerable personal cost,9 including increased stress. Caregiver stress
may aect the level of acceptance caregivers feel for the children in their care, as well
as contribute to behavioral problems in the children.9 e children placed in their care
may have experienced past trauma as a condition of their living situations and their
mothers’ incarceration. Lack of contact with incarcerated parents may be associated
with feelings of alienation on the part of the child,10 thus contributing to psychological
distress in the household.
Community and household conditions that aect mothers also aect their children.
Children of incarcerated mothers may experience poverty, familial substance abuse,
and changes in homes and guardians.11 Violence in the lives of women prisoners may
also aect their children, with witnessed or bystander eects resulting in psychological
or physical harm, as well as victimization through sexual and physical abuse directed
at the child.12 is may be compounded as children deal with the maternal separation
of incarceration. As Johnston13 has noted, younger children may be more aected by
the separation itself, while older youth experience the “enduring trauma” accumulated
over years of poverty, violence, and inconsistent caregiving14 All of these experiences
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
can generate maladaptive coping through risky or antisocial behavior, especially dur-
ing adolescence.13
Indeed, parental incarceration (both mothers and fathers) is associated with increased
risk for antisocial behavior among children.15 Eects include traumatic stress, lowered
self- concept, emotional and behavioral reactance, and delinquency.16 Such eects may
stem from witnessing arrests, the stress of experiencing a parent’s trial and the resulting
media attention, changes in guardianship and living conditions, or separation from the
parent.17,18 Murray and Farrington19 argue that parental incarceration creates unique
risks, noting that sons of incarcerated parents were about ve times as likely to be
incarcerated as boys separated from their parents for other reasons. Studies focused
on adolescent children of incarcerated mothers indicate they are at higher risk than
their peers of dropping out of high school and engaging in delinquent behaviors.13,20
Children of incarcerated mothers also have more interactions with the justice system.
More adolescent children of incarcerated mothers compared with those of incarcerated
fathers reported being in trouble with the law or being in a juvenile detention center.21
Incarcerated mothers were also 2.5 times more likely than incarcerated fathers to report
their adult children were incarcerated.22 e risk for teen pregnancy and possible sexual
risk behavior may also be a concern.23 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
may be uniquely at risk given their developmental stage and their history of “enduring
trauma,” yet few studies focus specically on the well- being of adolescent children of
incarcerated mothers (as most focus on younger children). Adolescence is marked by
physical, cognitive, and socioemotional changes that can be dicult to navigate for
many young adults. Many people begin to experiment with sexual activity and substance
use during adolescence. Intrafamilial constructs (such as developing connectedness,
attachment) and external factors (such as poverty, incarceration) can compound the
already dicult stage of adolescence. More research on adolescent children of incarcer-
ated mothers is necessary to gain a better understanding of their unique experiences.
A theoretical framework for examining adolescent children of incarcerated
mothers. e current study was guided by two theoretical frameworks, Jessor’s prob-
lem behavior theory24 and the social- ecological model. e problem behavior theory
describes adolescent risk behavior, e.g., substance use, delinquency, and sexual risk-
taking, as a constellation of behaviors that typically occur together and are inuenced
by both risk and protective factors. is “protection- risk” framework highlights the
role of protective factors—e.g., positive parental models and family support—as well
as risk factors—e.g., family models of risk behavior and vulnerability risks (including
stress, depression, low expectations, and low self- esteem).25 Like Jessor and colleagues,25
Rew and Horner26 describe a framework for understanding youth behavior, speci-
cally resilient behavior that emphasizes family and community in their sociocultural
context, in addition to individual risk and protective factors. For youth whose mothers
are incarcerated, these family and community factors may be especially important.
Recognizing the multi- layered nature of behavior, the social- ecological model pro-
vides a comprehensive framework for understanding factors that inuence behavior.27
is framework allows for an examination of adolescent behavior within the context
of intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational, community and public policy factors,
104 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
with the recognition that emphasis on individual (or intrapersonal) behavior alone
for youth would be misplaced.28is is especially true of children whose mothers are
incarcerated, rendering the social- ecological model, and problem behavior theory, ideal
frameworks for examining the experiences of this vulnerable subset of youth. ere
are multiple social and ecological levels of inuence on youth risk behaviors. For the
purpose of the present study, we are particularly interested in interpersonal inuences
that reect the relationships of adolescent children of incarcerated mothers, emphasiz-
ing the family (including caregiver) sociocultural context.
ere are a broad range of factors associated with youth risk behavior in children
of incarcerated parents.29 e aim of this study was to focus on youths interpersonal
relationships with incarcerated mothers and caregivers. We conducted a preliminary
exploratory study to begin to understand the nature of relationships and communi-
cation among adolescent children of incarcerated mothers, primary caregivers, and
incarcerated mothers. Additionally, we sought to understand how these relationships
support or inhibit risk behavior among adolescent children of incarcerated mothers.
Recruitment and eligibility. is study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards
at the researchers’ respective institutions. Youth and primary caregiver participants were
recruited through a non- prot organization working with incarcerated mothers and
their children. Flyers outlining eligibility criteria for both youth and primary caregivers
were distributed by sta in the organization. Youth had to (1) have a mother who was
currently incarcerated, (2) be between the ages of 12 and 18, and (3) have permission
from their primary caregiver to participate. Caregivers had to be the primary caregiver
of an adolescent between the ages of 12 and 18 whose mother was currently incarcer-
ated. Interested participants were asked to contact the researchers who followed up
by phone to verify eligibility and set up an in-person interview. Following individual
informed consent, assent, and caregiver permission for youth participation, caregiv-
ers and youth completed a short demographic survey and participated in a one- hour
interview in separate rooms of participants’ homes. Study procedures were established
to refer youth to organizational and community counseling resources in the event of
adverse emotional reactions during the interview. Youth participants received a $25
gi card, and caregivers received a $50 gi card for their time and eort.
Participants. Each participant completed a brief demographic survey before partici-
pating in the interview. A total of 13 interviews were conducted. Participants included
adolescent children of incarcerated women (n=7) and their primary caregivers (n=6).
Sample size for purposeful sampling relies on saturation—the point at which no new
information or themes are observed in the data.30 Guest etal. found saturation to occur
within 12 interviews, with metathemes being present as early as six interviews.30 us,
our sample is likely sucient for exploring broad themes relating to adolescent children
of incarcerated mothers.
e mean age for youth participants was 14.6 years (sd=2.1). Four males and three
females participated in the youth group. e mean age for caregivers was 54.8 years
(sd=14.7). Two men and four women made up the adult sample. Two of the caregivers
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
reported the mother’s current incarceration as her rst time being incarcerated. e
average time the youth reported living with their caregiver was 84 months or seven years
(sd=54.7), ranging from 24 months (two years) to 180 months (15 years). All partici-
pants self- identied as African American (see Table 1 for demographic characteristics).
e demographic survey also included a question developed for this study for
participants to rate their relationship with either their mother and primary caregiver
(youth) or the incarcerated mother and adolescent (caregiver) on a scale of 1 to 10,
where 1 is “poor” and 10 is “excellent.” Participants reported relatively high ratings for
their interpersonal relationships. e average rating for youth- mother relationships (as
rated by youth) was 9.00 (sd. 1.15). When asked to rate their relationship with their
caregiver, the youths mean score was 8.28 (sd. 1.49). Caregivers, when asked to rate
their relationship with the youth, reported a mean score of 8.28 (s.d. 1.70). When asked
to rate their relationship with the incarcerated mother, the caregivers mean score was
7.800 (sd. 2.58). In spite of these relatively high ratings, qualitative data oered a more
detailed and nuanced understanding of the nature of these relationships.
Interview guide development. e interview guides were developed using an
ecological perspective to account for the interaction of the adolescent and their physi-
cal and sociocultural environment.28 Open- ended questions addressed intrapersonal,
Table 1.
Varia b l e Youth (n = 7) Caregiver (n = 6)
Age 14.6 (s.d. = 2.1) 54.8 (s.d. = 14.7)
Male 57.0% 33.3%
Female 43.0% 67.7%
Highest Grade Completed
< High School 42.9% (n = 3) n.a.
9th– 12th 57.2% (n = 4) 83.3% (n = 5)
More than High School n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
<$25,000 n.a. 40.0% (n = 2)
$25,000–34,999 n.a. 60.0% (n = 3)
Employment Status
Fulltime n.a 33.3% (n = 2)
Disabled n.a. 33.3% (n = 2)
Retired n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
Unemployed n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
Type of Caregiver
Grandmother n.a. 50.0% (n = 3)
Aunt n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
Father n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
Mentor/ Coach n.a. 16.7% (n = 1)
106 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
interpersonal, institutional, and community factors; however emphasis was placed on
youths’ interpersonal relationships, especially with mothers and caregivers.
Youth were rst asked to describe themselves and their involvement in school, church,
and their community. ey were also asked to share their aspirations. Youth were then
asked about their feelings and experiences regarding their mother’s incarceration, as
well as how the incarceration has aected them (including issues of stigma, social sup-
port, emotional reactions, and family environment). Additional prompts addressed the
youths’ relationships and communication with their mother (e.g., When you talk to or
visit your mother, what are some things you talk about? What was your relationship
like with your mother before her incarceration and did it change aer she was locked
up?), and caregiver (e.g., How would you describe your relationship with your care-
giver? How comfortable do you feel talking to your caregiver about sensitive topics?).
Questions addressed youth risk behavior, such as academic involvement, substance
use, and sexual risk- taking (How has your behavior changed since your mother’s
incarceration?) as well as communication about risk (e.g., Do you ever discuss topics
such as sex, alcohol or drug use with your mother or caregiver? If so, what are some
of the things you discuss?).
Caregivers were asked to describe their relationship and communication with the
youth and the mother before and since mother’s incarceration, as well as their own
needs and experiences related to support in caring for youth. ey were also asked
about youths risk behavior and to describe any behavior changes of the youth pre- or
post- incarceration.
Data analysis. is study used a grounded theory approach. Symbolic interaction-
ism is the theoretical basis for grounded theory, and it stresses that human behavior is
developed through interaction with others.31 In this sense, it is complementary to the
social- ecological perspective. Audio- recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim
and NVivo qualitative soware was used to store, manage, and analyze data. In the
tradition of grounded theory, three types of coding were conducted: open coding, axial
coding, and selective coding.32 Open coding was used during the early stage of coding
to document rst impressions and thoughts about the data. Members of the research
team reviewed transcribed interviews individually to develop possible categories. Next,
axial coding was conducted to explore and verify relationships between the categories
and subcategories generated in open coding. During this stage of coding, the researchers
met to discuss and nalize categories, e.g., discussion was necessary to clarify the sub-
categories under the “Communication about Risk” theme. Finally, selective coding was
conducted to rene categories and integrate concepts around core themes. Together,
researchers revisited coded data to interpret ndings.
Grounded- theory analysis revealed several themes related to the study aims. Seven
themes and corresponding sub- themes were identied as pertinent to interpersonal
relationships and their role in supporting or inhibiting risk and resilience behavior in
youth. (See Box 1.)
Youth relationship with incarcerated mothers. Prior to mother’s incarceration,
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
some youth- mother relationships were described as close and others as chaotic. Most
youth described close relationships with their mothers. Aer incarceration, many youth
recognized mother’s mistakes that resulted in incarceration and expressed disappoint-
ment or anger about her poor decisions. In spite of this, most youth respected their
mothers and desired close relationships with them.
I really do want that time that we used to have before she le, and sometimes it makes
me angry that she did—le . . . and that she did the things that she did to leave. ’Cause
I would say to myself, “Why did she have to do that? Why is she in there now?” It’s
hard, ’cause we can’t see her. I mean, I watch these movies sometimes, and I see all
these kids seeing their moms and dads, and sometimes I get upset.—Male Youth
Caregivers also perceived youth to be very concerned about their mother’s opinions
regarding risk behaviors. One caregiver described how the mother, although incarcer-
ated, still had some inuence over her child’s behavior.
She still parenting from there, because I have to tell her a lot of times about his atti-
tude. . . . to talk to him, because she kind of had that same attitude. So, I guess that’s
where he got it from. Like, “You need to talk to him about this.” So she talks to him,
and it actually calms him down, even though she’s incarcerated. He does get better
with it.—Female Caregiver
Youth communication with incarcerated mothers. Method, frequency, and sub-
ject matter of youth communication with mothers constituted a recurring theme in
interviews. In most instances, youth and mothers communicated regularly according
Box 1.
Youth Relationship with Incarcerated Mother
Youth Communication with Incarcerated Mother
Caregiver Relationship with Incarcerated Mother
Pre- Incarceration
Post- Incarceration
Youth Relationship with Caregiver
Youth Communication with Caregiver
Communication about Risk and Resilience
Caregiver Shared Stories of the Past
Youth Behavior Necessitated Communication
Caregiver Raised Issue with Youth
Communication Between Incarcerated Mother and Youth
Eects of Incarceration on Youth
Behavioral Eects
Emotional Eects
108 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
to both caregivers and youth. One caregiver, who is the legal guardian of multiple
children, recounted that one child communicated with his mother, while the other did
not, in spite of his being encouraged to do so. e caregiver noted that communication
between this youth and his mother ceased due to the mother’s incarceration.
I [make] sure they get their regular visits [with their mother] every third weekend
of the month and that they write in between visits. . . . like I said [Youth] [hasn’t
written], and he [hasn’t] visited. So it’s something there, but . . . he ain’t gonna talk
about it.—Male Caregiver
e most frequent method of communication discussed between youth and their
incarcerated mothers was telephone calls, followed by letters, face- to-face visits, and
email. e organization from which youth and caregivers were recruited was frequently
mentioned for organizing and facilitating face- to-face visits between youth and their
mothers, which usually occurred once a month. e frequency of communication
between mother and child(ren) varied by the method of communication. For example,
the frequency of letter- writing ranged from once per week to once per month. In addi-
tion to letters sent via mail, there were also pictures, cards, and gis. e frequency
of communication by telephone ranged from every day to once per month. Only one
youth recounted emailing his mother, and he said they communicated via email mul-
tiple times per week.
Youth indicated that their incarcerated mothers expressed their expectations for their
children’s behavior. Some emphasized education and future plans. Mothers reportedly
were very interested in the lives of their children and oen participated in disciplining
them along with caregivers when allowed to do so. In the eyes of several of the youth,
mothers were still seen as disciplinarians. Conversations between incarcerated moth-
ers and youth about risk and resilience behaviors seemed to be open, very succinct,
and to the point.
And like me and my momma even talk about it. I’m not [going to] like, do it raw
and risk being pregnant or getting an STD or one of those. Like I’ll think before I,
you know . . .—Female Youth
According to caregivers, the content of communication was usually disciplinary and
advisory in nature. On the contrary, youth reported communication with their mothers
covered a variety of topics, including sports, school, boyfriends/ girlfriends, daily life
occurrences, and the mother’s expected release date.
When we talk, it’s like we having a conversation. It’s like she ask about how I’m doing
and what’s new and stu like that. And I ask her about some of the friends she got
in jail and stu . . .—Male Youth
Well, I basically like, tell her like what’s going on in the house, how I’m feeling, let
her know how I’m doing in school, you know, keep her up to date.—Female Youth
We talk about what’s going on, how our brothers are doing . . . are they having any
problems in school [sni]. She worries if we are having any problems with her being
locked up, if it’s like, how it’s aecting us.—Female Youth
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
We talk about when she’s getting out and when we’re gonna be able to see her. Some-
times I tell her what I’m going through, if I’m upset, and she just tries to encourage
me: “It’s ok. You’ll get through it.”—Male Youth
Caregiver relationship with incarcerated mother. Relationships between caregiv-
ers and incarcerated mothers ranged from close bonds to strained or distant, with
the specic nature of relationships including mothers, an ex-spouse, sisters, and one
relationship between a coach and the youths’ mother.
Pre‑ incarceration. Two caregivers who were sisters of an incarcerated mother
described their relationship with the incarcerated mother as “sisterly” or “close with
the usual sisterly spats.” e caregiver in the mother/ incarcerated daughter relation-
ship said she never felt as if she had a relationship with her daughter. is realization
aected her views of the current state of their relationship and her relationship with
the grandchild in her custody.
Post‑ incarceration. Caregivers described their current relationship with the incar-
cerated mothers as being “in limbo,” broken, or ambivalent. Although these phrases
and terms may have negative connotations, even in the most strained relationship the
caregiver and incarcerated mother had a symbiotic relationship through which they
prioritized the well- being of the child over their own feelings for one another. In most
cases, caregivers seemed supportive of youth- mother relationships for the sake of
the youth. e two male caregivers described eorts to distance themselves from the
mothers as a means of boundary- setting, while also intending to keep the youth and
incarcerated mother’s relationship stable and intact.
e male caregiver who was the youths coach described his relationship with the
incarcerated mother as cordial, but also stated that there were strict boundaries set
within their relationship. For example, as legal guardian of all four of the incarcerated
mother’s children, he said that he abides by mother’s requests when these are within
reason, but notices when requests are beyond his realm of guardianship.
A male caregiver and ex-husband of the incarcerated mother expressed his perception
that the children were the only common interest currently between the incarcerated
mother and him. He recognized the children needed their mother, and he could not
fulll that need. Due to their divorce, he redened the boundaries of their relationship.
It’s not like I would be friends with her outside of our commonality with the boys . . .
We’re divorced so you don’t get all that. But I umm . . . I just want her to be a stand up
person for those boys because they, they need her. And I never try to replace her—I
don’t do that. I’m dad, and she’s mom. I don’t do what moms do. Uh, so I recognize
the need that they have for her.”—Male Caregiver
e mother/ incarcerated daughter relationship was characterized by ambiguity and
uncertainty. A caregiver whose daughter was incarcerated (and who was thus caring
for her grandchildren) recounted hardships faced in her relationship with her daugh-
ter—such as the of personal items and money—and noted how that aected their
current relationship.
Now it’s sort of in limbo. For the rst time in four or ve years, I have a smile because
of something that she did. She sent me GED papers. I haven’t felt that in years. But
110 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
my thing . . . now is, when she writes and she says, “Mom, I love you,”—Is it genuine
or is [she] just accommodating for the situation?—female Caregiver
Youth relationship with caregiver. Some youth- caregiver relationships were not close
prior to the mother’s incarceration. Such pre- existing close relationships were described
only by the father and aunt caregivers. Current relationships varied in their characteriza-
tion, from “great” or “pretty good” to “better than it was,” “if- fy,” or “improving.” Youth
and caregivers in the latter instances said they were getting to know each other better.
Relationships between youth and caregivers were aected by caregiver’s expressed
opinions about incarcerated mothers. One youth described how her mother’s incarcera-
tion negatively aected her relationship with the caregiver. For this youth, the hardest
part of the youth- caregiver relationship was her caregiver’s fear that that the youth
would grow up to be like her incarcerated mother.
[e caregiver] feels that [I will] be like my mother. Like she gured [I will] run
away and be on drugs and all this stu like my mom did. And she feels that I am
my mother. I be trying to tell her, “I’m not my mother. I’m my mother’s child.” I’m a
dierent person, and I feel that she doesn’t trust me. And I be like, “Well if you think
of me as my own person and not my mother, you might be able to understand me
more, and we might not clash as much as we do.”—Female Youth
Youth communication with caregiver. Youth and caregivers did appear to com-
municate, although some of these communications were strained. Youth did not want
to talk to caregivers about their mothers. ey also expressed hesitation about talking
to friends, teachers, or others outside of their immediate family about their mothers.
Youth recounted instances of defending their mothers when their caregiver would speak
negatively about the incarcerated women. One youth described her caregiver sharing
stories of her mother’s past risk- taking behavior and her regret that they never shared a
meaningful relationship. In contrast, other instances of caregiver communication about
the mother to the youth were intended to soothe, support, or comfort.
Caregivers said they talked to youth about risk; however youth suggested this com-
munication was not always open. Some youth were hesitant having open dialogue with
caregivers because of concerns about the anticipated caregiver response.
One caregiver recounted an instance when she sought help from the local police
to help her communicate with her two youths regarding the rules and regulations of
her household.
I even called the police out here to talk to both of ’em to let them know. If they don’t
want to stay here, they don’t have to. And we decided to come to a compromise.—
Female Caregiver
Communication about risk. Some caregivers were more eective in talking with
youth because they actively encouraged communication. Older caregivers, particularly
grandmothers, seemed less able to communicate with youth. ere appeared to be
four dierent pathways to communication about risk by caregivers: (1) youth’s behav-
ior necessitated communication aer youth engaged in risk behavior, (2) caregivers
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
shared stories of their past involving risk, (3) caregiver raised the issue with youth,
and (4)conversations between incarcerated mother and youth regarding risk behavior.
Caregivers shared stories of the past. Caregivers shared past indiscretions with
alcohol and drugs as a way to show youth the consequences of bad behavior. In these
instances, caregivers said they advised youth not to engage in risk behavior (e.g.,
drinking alcohol) while at the same time sharing the poor consequences of their own
behavior (e.g., DUI- driving under the inuence).
Caregiver raised issue with youth. Risk and resilience conversations related to
school, gangs, bullying, substance use, and sex were also discussed. In most instances
caregivers initiated discussion about youth behavior while attempting to make youth
comfortable with open communication.
We talk about the gangs and the bullying in school. I always ask him if he is having
trouble with anything in school—“Is anybody at school bothering you?’—because I
see now a lot of kids don’t tell their parents. So I try to make him feel comfortable
with telling about anything. —Female Caregiver
e issue of sexuality and sexual orientation was also raised by one caregiver in a
supportive eort to help his son personally clarify his sexual orientation to avoid being
taken advantage of later in life.
While many caregivers raised the issue of sex in a way that invited communication,
one youth discussed an instance where her caregiver raised the issue of sex and condom
use in a way that did not foster open communication.
It was ugly, ’cause [the caregiver] was just like, “Oh, you having sex,” and “You betta
be this,” and “You betta be that.” So now, every other day, she like, “You betta not be
pregnant.” Like that just . . . it kills me.—Female Youth
Conversations between incarcerated mothers and youth regarding risk behavior.
As discussed previously under the Youth Communication with Incarcerated Mother
theme, youth did indicate that mothers were still seen as disciplinarians in spite of their
physical absence. From the youths’ perspectives, conversations between mothers and
youth about risk could be described as open but to the point.
Eects of incarceration on youth. e emotional and behavioral eects of the
mother’s incarceration were noted by both the caregiver and youth. One caregiver
noted that the mother’s incarceration made the youth more focused and certain of the
direction he wanted to follow in life, and that it awakened the youth’s sense of deter-
mination to work on past anger and mood issues.
He’s more focused now, he’s, um, very comfortable with the direction of where he’s
going in life, he’s less . . . I don’t want to say worried, because he used to always be
lost in thought when he rst got here. But slowly but surely he started coming out of
that. . . . as if he was always real concerned or worried about something. Um, yeah,
he’s more solid. He’s more rooted now than he’s been in the past.—Male Caregiver
Coping. When youth were asked how their mother’s incarceration aected them,
many also addressed the ways that they cope with not having their mothers around.
112 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
ese coping skills reected both resilience and risk behaviors. Resilience behaviors were
internal (individual) and external (e.g., family contact, sports). One youth discussed
going outside or going upstairs to a room to be alone. Another youth cited using creative
outlets such as writing stories and poems to help with the mother’s absence. Auxiliary
family members, such as aunts, uncles, and family friends played a signicant role in
the youth’s process of coping and moving past their mother’s incarceration. A male
youth discussed using sports to cope, with his mother’s incarceration as motivation to
do his best athletically. Another male recounted how his uncle helped him move past
the pain he felt from his mother’s incarceration, encouraging him to stay focused and
not to allow her situation to hinder him academically. When asked probing questions
about why one participant didn’t share his problems with anyone, he replied that he
didn’t like talking to people about his mother.
Risk behaviors included substance use and delinquency. Some youth reported
alcohol and marijuana use, discussed in the context of “rst- time use,” as well as more
regular use. Substance use was discussed in the context of coping—to help youth sleep
or when depressed.
If I’m like, depressed, I’m gonna do [drugs or use alcohol]. I mean, I try not to, but
if I’m like . . . if I’m aggravated, I’m angry . . . Like, that’s the way I can release myself,
but when I do it I just go to sleep. It just helps me go to sleep good.—Female Youth
Youth discussed their knowledge of the consequences of using substances and wanting
to avoid those consequences as well as wanting to excel athletically, therefore avoid-
ing them. As for delinquency, one participant exhibited behavioral problems aer her
mother was incarcerated and was subsequently detained in a juvenile detention center
for a year. With regard to academic success—there were examples of youth doing very
well in school, and others who had diculty. One youth discussed an improvement
in his grades aer his mother’s incarceration. Several youth said they were not sexu-
ally active; however one did indicate using condoms consistently. Another admitted
turning to sex because she didn’t know how to deal with her mother’s incarceration.
Emotional eects. One father described his attempts to strengthen his child emotion-
ally during the mother’s incarceration. e father noted a sadness that had overcome his
son due to his mother’s incarceration. e father attributed this sadness to the youth’s
inability to escape into his “made up world,” something his mother allowed more than
the father thought was healthy.
Caregiver observations of emotional changes in the youth since the mother’s incar-
ceration were observed throughout the interviews. Caregivers noted youths’ emotions
regarding the mothers incarceration, such as embarrassment, anger, and sadness. Some
youth longed for the mother to return in order to restore a semblance of the life they
had together before the mother’s incarceration. Caregivers mentioned youths’ sadness
aer visits with mothers, as well as “positive” ways youths responded to their mothers’
I know that he misses her a lot . . . he’s her only child so he got all the attention . . .
I have other kids so he don’t get that one- on- one attention that he’s used to. I don’t
want to say it caused a . . . some positive [change] but it’s letting him know he don’t
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
want to go out and do [bad] things . . . because he see what the consequences are. So
I think that’s help . . . keeping [him] grounded as well.—Female Caregiver
When asked how their mothers incarceration aected them, youth also discussed
emotional eects including anger, sadness, and loneliness as well as self- described
mental stress and diculty in school.
Cause like it was like a lot of mental stress on me. at’s why I started messing up in
school and stu. Grades started slipping.—Male Youth
Youth also talked about emotional pain associated with their mother’s absence dur-
ing important events in their lives. For example, one youth noted feeling angry and
distant but also recounted how a family member helped him cope with that feeling.
Although some could articulate their feelings, other youth were unable to express how
their mothers’ incarceration aected them, or they seemed to be indierent.
She kinda raised us to be independent. So, that’s kinda how I go about . . . not . . .
knowing like, you don’t have a mom so, when other kids are talking about having
“mom days” or going out with their parents . . . It’s hard knowing that you don’t . . .
you can’t go out with your mom.—Female Youth
In this sample, adolescents’ relationships with their mothers did not seem to be aected
by the relationship mothers have with caregivers, although caregivers did have inu-
ence on mother- child interactions because they could serve as a barrier or facilitator
to communication. is may likely be a consequence of youths’ involvement with an
organization to help facilitate communication between children and their incarcerated
mothers. Prior to the interview, youth participants were asked to rate their relationships
with their incarcerated mother and their caregiver. e relatively high scores suggest
that youth value relationships with caregivers, and that they especially value relation-
ships with their mothers. is may also reect youth’s idealization of their mother and
their relationship prior to her incarceration.
Few studies have explored the nature of communication among incarcerated mothers,
their children and the caregivers of their children. is exploratory study highlights the
importance of communication between youth, their incarcerated mothers, and their
caregivers, in the well- being and functioning of youth as they adjust to and attempt to
manage their mother’s incarceration as they develop towards their own adulthood. is
study also oers insight into the nature of relationships among youth, primary caregivers,
and mothers, as well as the role of caregiver and mother in youth risk and resilience.
Even when strained, caregiver- mother relationships oen reected the best interest
of the youth. Caregivers seemed to be willing to work with incarcerated mothers for
the sake of youth. For some caregivers, communication with youth was much easier
(and more palatable for youth) than for others. Some caregivers developed eective
methods to communicate with youth, while others (e.g., grandmothers) were particularly
strained. For most youth, the relationship with their mothers was one they appreciated.
114 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
From the youth perspective, communication with mothers helped to maintain closeness
despite distance. From the caregiver perspective, mother’s communication with youth
benetted youth and was helpful in disciplining and advising youth.
Youth were aected emotionally by their mother’s incarceration, exhibiting sad-
ness, anger, disappointment, and an inability to express their feelings. Some youth,
with guidance from supportive adults, were able to channel those feelings positively
to excel academically and athletically. Others coped by engaging in risk behavior (e.g.,
substance use, delinquency, and sex). Youth coped in dierent ways, however very few
discussed their mother’s incarceration with others outside of their family- caregiver unit.
is speaks to the importance of the caregiver- youth relationship with respect to the
youths’ need to communicate about their mothers.
Both incarcerated mothers and caregivers openly shared past indiscretions relating
to risk behavior, which created teachable moments that beneted youth. ese strate-
gies may be eective in helping youth to avoid risk behavior while building upon
their natural ability to thrive in spite of their circumstances. In spite of this, caregivers
seemed less well equipped to address the emotional eects of mothers’ incarceration.
Research has demonstrated the importance of parent/ guardian communication in
preventing or moderating youth risk behavior. Parents remain an inuential presence
in the lives of their children, oen more inuential than peers. Researchers have argued
that contact with incarcerated parents and communication regarding their incarcera-
tion and reentry can help children adjust.18,33 Strategies to improve communication
among adolescents, caregivers, and mothers may help reduce risk among youth. e
mother- caregiver relationship is an important one.34 Incarcerated mothers and primary
caregivers represent an important family unit for adolescent children of incarcerated
mothers, and may play a role in supporting or inhibiting risk behavior.
Collaboration between caregivers and incarcerated mothers is essential to providing
a network of discipline and support. Further, mother’s experiences can be instructive,
while caregiver’s day- to-day contact can reinforce prevention messages. Limited com-
munication among this triad makes for a natural point of intervention to increase
communication and potentially impact engagement in risk behavior. A prevention
intervention for youth that incorporates both incarcerated mothers and primary care-
givers may be eective in improving communication and attenuating the impacts of
maternal incarceration and other adversity for these youth. With this in mind, we oer
a conceptual framework for further consideration.
Conceptual framework for understanding relationships and risk communication.
We postulate that youth connectedness (with incarcerated mothers and caregivers alike)
as well as communication about risk, play a role in youth risk behavior (specically
sexual risk behavior, substance use, and delinquency). Figure 1 presents a conceptual
model of mother and caregiver communication with youth and youth risk. Parental
involvement and communication about risk has been shown to inhibit sexual risk
behavior, substance use, delinquency, and aggression in youth in general.35– 38 Although
nontraditional in family structure, families with incarcerated mothers—specically the
mother’s involvement and ability to communicate eectively with their children about
risk—may be important in reducing youth risk behavior.
Several studies have examined mother- child connectedness linked to parent out-
Robillard, Holliday, DeHart, Lewis, Rutherford, and Amutah
comes for incarcerated parents, e.g., stress and depression,34,39– 41 however fewer studies
have examined mother- child attachment from the child’s perspective,7 and especially
from the perspective of adolescents. To our knowledge, no studies have specically
examined mother- child communication regarding problem behavior or avoidance of
problem behavior. Having a mother in jail or prison is suggestive of problem behavior
in youth. is problem behavior might be attributed to a lack of connectedness by
adolescents to socializing institutions and people such as family, friends, and school.22
is “connectedness” to family structures may serve to reduce the likelihood of delin-
quent behavior in youth.22
An incarcerated mothers involvement and ability to communicate and connect is
dependent on numerous factors (e.g., the nature of mothers’ relationship with their
children, the frequency of communication, and the level of caregiver support in facili-
tating the relationship). e relationship between mothers and caregivers, as well as
the support for the mother’s relationship with the child by the caregiver are important
factors. Oen, this support is demonstrated by the frequency of communication—
especially in the case of caregiver support for child and mother communication.
Although emphasis in the literature may be on the incarcerated mother’s relationship
with her children, the nature of the caregiver’s relationship with the child also plays a
role in connectedness to youth and may also help to facilitate eective communica-
tion about risk. Children of incarcerated mothers reported less risk behavior when
they felt warmth and acceptance from caregivers,9 suggesting the importance of the
child/ caregiver relationship. For caregivers, the level of involvement and the ability to
eectively communicate and connect with youth also depends on numerous factors,
e.g., the nature of the relationship between the caregiver and the child and the mother’s
support of the caregiver, or more specically—the nature of the relationship between the
mother and the caregiver. Lastly, the skills needed to communicate with the child may
also be an important factor in connectedness and eective communication about risk.
is preliminary, exploratory, qualitative study helped to highlight issues around
communication among adolescents, incarcerated mothers, and caregivers. However, we
recognize our modest sample size and reliance on a convenience sample of youth and
caregivers in contact with an agency limits the generalizability of ndings. In particular,
our participants were engaged in services intended to improve mother- child relation-
ships. Additionally, it is dicult to say that we have exhausted all major themes based
on our small sample. With a larger sample, researchers might also be able to examine
whether our identied themes vary as a function of gender, age, or relationship between
Youth Risk
Substance Use
Possible Moderating Factors
Mother/Caregiver Relationship
Caregiver/Mother Support
Frequency of Communication
Communication Skills Communication
Figure 1. Conceptual model of mother and caregiver communication and youth risk.
116 Adolescent children of incarcerated mothers
the youth and their caregivers. We were also unable to interview incarcerated mothers
for this study. e additional layer of their perspective would have provided additional
and meaningful insight into the youth/ incarcerated mother/ caregiver dynamic. Finally,
some youth may not have been forthcoming about their risk activity given the sensitive
nature of some questions.
Future directions. Additional qualitative and quantitative research is needed to
examine more fully the proposed conceptual model. Examining the constructs and
pathways in the proposed model will provide more information on the dynamics of
the mother- child, caregiver- child and mother- caregiver relationships. Future research
should examine whether similar themes emerge with samples of adolescent children
of incarcerated mothers when these youth and their caregivers are not involved in
services. Research to quantify the current status of adolescents whose mothers are
incarcerated would also oer a better demographic picture of the impact of maternal
incarceration on youth.
Adolescent children whose mothers are in prison experience vulnerabilities that
increase their chances of negative life outcomes. is study highlighted such vulner-
abilities; however, youth in this study also demonstrated resilience by engaging in
positive behavior and resisting activities that could lead to poor outcomes. Future
research should attempt to elucidate resiliency factors, more fully. Oen, resilience was
facilitated by the youth themselves, their families and their communities, specically
incarcerated mothers and caregivers, as well as positive role models (e.g., teachers and
people at community agencies). Rew and Horner26 describe this in their Youth Resil-
ience Framework. Fergus and Zimmerman42 also describe examples of resilience- based
family interventions that focus on youth assets and family resources. Interventions of
this type may succeed in this population. Family interventions to develop resilience
in this subset of youth can do so by strengthening the mother/ youth/ caregiver unit,
where possible, and building on existing resources to provide opportunities to improve
relationships and communication through targeted interventions. Policies to support
caregivers are also important and warrant further action.
e research team extends thanks to the youth and caregivers who participated in
this research, as well as the collaborating organization for their support. is study
was funded through the RCMI Infrastructure for Clinical and Translational Research
award funded to Morehouse School of Medicine by the National Center for Research
Resources (Grant No. 5U54RR026137).
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