Separation and the Life-long Impact of Incarceration on Child Development
At the recent OCPOA Conference, [Ohio Chief Probation Officer’s Association Conference], Dr. Paul Martin, a forensic psychiatrist presented a workshop on ‘Children of Incarcerated Parents’. One of the central points is that a child’s response to the trauma of separation varies according to age, but always that ‘separation has a profound effect! Children are always traumatized by separation, regardless of the cause of separation, be it divorce, death, military assignment or incarceration.’ This is true even if the parents are abusive, he added. Reactions can include ‘an inability to form later attachments, numbing, self-blame, depression, regression and antisocial behaviors.’ In early childhood a child might experience ‘agitation, loss of recent milestones, mostly disorganized behaviors and feelings. Later, conduct, aggression, substance abuse, and odd maladaptive behaviors could be a consequence.‘
Martin explored several slides with child reactions to parental incarceration which might include ‘flashbacks to traumatic events related to arrests, embarrassment, and anger, fear, anxiety, emotional withdrawal, guilt, low self-esteem, depression, emotional withdrawal from friends and family, and separation anxiety. A teen might experience abandonment, loneliness, sadness, anger, resentment, eating and sleeping disorders, aggression, hyper arousal, attention disorders, developmental regression, academic and classroom behavior difficulties and truancy.’ He said, ‘Children of incarcerated parents are characterized by dysfunctional family, reoffending parents, traumatized children and intergenerational incarceration.’ Dr. Martin explained that, “Twenty to 30% will have mental health issues right off the bat and are five times more likely to wind up incarcerated themselves, two out of ten before age 21. Forty percent of parents have mental health issues. There are complex family issues as well. They are more likely to be under-educated, unemployed or substance abusers.”
Martin emphasized that a critical factor for normal childhood development is that a child must negotiate each stage of his/her development in sequence. Using Erickson’s Development Psychology model, he said the role of normal development cannot be under-estimated. In Ericksons’ model, at age 0-1 a child learns to develop trust vs. distrust; age 1-3 is characterized by autonomy vs. shame; age 3-5 initiative vs. guilt; age 6-11 industry vs. inferiority, and age 11-20 is the role identity development stage/negotiating peer pressure vs. role confusion.
We now know from neuroscience that separation can even lead to changes in the amygdala. In looking at the typical age of children of incarcerated men and/or women, over 1/3 are in the 0 to age 6 range; 42-46% in the 7-12 age range and 11-25% in the 12-18 age range. This helps to understand which developmental traits might be affected in the child or adolescent by separation from the parent- whether incarceration or otherwise. When you consider that 2,300,133 adults in the US population were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails (2009), a lot of kids & families are affected. There is sometimes even malnutrition in these kids. They are ‘traumatized at a time in life when they can least afford to be traumatized and the reason is the breakdown of their nuclear family.”
Martin explored the five acknowledged parenting types common with abuse/neglect of children and dysfunctional families: 1) schizophrenia, 2) bi-polar disorder, 3) borderline personality disorder, 4) substance use disorder and, 5) sociopaths. He explored the differences between socio-paths and psychopaths in detail and the early role of conduct disorders in children who exhibit disruptive behaviors and an unwillingness to subscribe to social norms. Usually this child will have issues with oppositional defiant disorder but also depression and especially PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is important to look at the frequency of a teen’s behaviors, intensity (such as fire-setting), any cognitive deficits-(such as academic or social) in evaluating which might lead to future incarceration, he stressed. This includes behaviors such as lying, cheating, stealing, runaways, substance abuse, promiscuity, bullying, fighting (particularly with weapons). Two most ominous behaviors to future incarceration include truancy and cruelty to animals. Resiliency factors include intervention and treatment, exposure to positive role models, structure in one’s life, education & effective curriculum and an array of support services. ‘Alternative schools with a clear mission, smaller enrollment, rules, higher standards’ are among the programs that work in promoting success and breaking the cycle. An unacceptably high percentage of offenders (a significant socio-cultural crisis for America) are African American males.
[Photo credit: teen boy photo by Ragsac 19 Dreamstime 27929231]