Julie Poehlmann, a professor in the
Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University
of Wisconsin at Madison, presented her recent findings from a study
on relationships in families affected by maternal incarceration. She
was the invited speaker for a seminar co-sponsored by the two
University of Illinois Cross-Campus Initiatives: Promoting Family
Resiliency and the Initiative on Aging.
The Cross-Campus Initiative for
Promoting Family Resiliency aims to learn how families under
difficult circumstances manage to successfully raise their children.
The Initiative on Aging addresses a variety of research themes,
ranging from the molecular biology of aging to the legal and ethical
issues on aging.
"Over the past two decades there has
been a 700 percent increase in the number of incarcerated women in
the United States," Poehlmann said in her talk at the Beckman
Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Rather than have the
children go into foster care, grandparents (mostly maternal
grandmothers) will frequently take care of their grandchildren, she
Although grandparents can be a
tremendous resource for their grandchildren, grandparents make their
lives more complicated and stressful by assuming a custodial role,
Because many incarcerated mothers
had a childhood trauma, such as abuse, maternal grandmothers often
worry that when they care for the grandchildren they may repeat the
same mistakes they made with their daughters.
Grandmothers also are concerned
about the need to learn new parenting strategies when raising their
grandchildren, said Poehlmann, who earned a doctorate in clinical
psychology from Syracuse University. "A typical feeling among
grandmothers is, 'How am I going to do this again?'"
Through her research, Poehlmann has
identified several attributes of grandparents that predict a
positive relationship with a custodial grandchild. They include
economic stability, good health of the grandparent, social support
from family and neighbors, and open communication with the
grandchild and the incarcerated mother.
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Poehlmann has also found that a
higher moral and religious emphasis in the home is related to fewer
behavioral problems in children with grandparents as their primary
In addition, Poehlmann evaluated how
young children perceive their relationship with their custodial
grandparent, finding predictors of resiliency within children of
incarcerated mothers. Children with the greatest resiliency were
those who were told about the incarceration in a simple and honest
Poehlmann used IQ scores to study
each child's cognition. "Better cognition is one pathway to
resilience," she said. Generally, IQ scores were lower than average
in her subjects. However, she found that children with positive
relationships with their custodial grandparents have higher
cognitive IQ scores than children who have negative relationships.
"Our research shows that cognitive
resilience in children is predicted by a positive, supportive,
responsive, stimulating home and family environment and is
positively related to children's cognitive development," Poehlmann
said. However, this is only true if the child is in a stable living
situation, she added. In her study, 70 percent of the children had
not been forced to live in multiple homes.
Poehlmann has devised ideas for
promoting resilience in high-risk families. Kinship-care funding,
promoting stability in placements of children with a caregiver,
promoting positive environments, increasing social support networks,
and promoting mental and physical health in caregivers are among the
strategies that promote resiliency, she said.
"Aging research does not often
include children," Poehlmann said. "My research aims to help bridge
the life course by looking at the perspectives of children, parents
[University of Illinois news