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When grandparents step in because Mom's in jail     Send a link to a friend

[OCT. 23, 2004]  URBANA --- Raising a grandchild under normal circumstances can be very challenging, but it is even more stressful when the child's mother is in jail, according to a study presented Oct. 4 during a seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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 said.

Although grandparents can be a tremendous resource for their grandchildren, grandparents make their lives more complicated and stressful by assuming a custodial role, Poehlmann said.

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 caregiver.

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 way.

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 and grandparents."

[University of Illinois news release]

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