Prison stress adversely affects mother-child relationships

One third of Australian women experience high parenting stress after close family imprisonment.

New research from Griffith University published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies has found that women affected by high parenting stress are also significantly more likely to report feeling less satisfied in their relationship with their child one year later.

Dr Kirsten Besemer and Professor Susan Dennison from the Griffith Criminology Institute measured the combined direct effects of close family imprisonment and parenting stress on mother-child relationships.

Using the Household, Income and Labour dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, a nationally representative panel study of Australian households, they analysed the socioeconomic information of 15,000 people over the age of 15. As well as an in-person interview, respondents also completed a 20-page questionnaire with more sensitive questions.

Better mental health, general health and social support networks appeared to protect against problems in women’s relationship with their children, while living remote areas and having more children in the home had a very small but significant negative effect on mother-child relationship satisfaction. Being older was found to have a very small protective effect on parenting stress.

“There are very few studies of children who are affected by the imprisonment of close relatives other than parents, such as grandparents and siblings,’’ said Dr Besemer.

“However, recent evidence shows the imprisonment of parental and of non-parental house-holds members affected a roughly equal proportion of Australian children.”

An increasing number of Australian children are affected by the imprisonment of a close family member. About 4.3% of all children and 20.1% of Indigenous children are estimated to experience the imprisonment of their father while 0.7% of non-Indigenous and 18.8% of Indigenous children have been affected by maternal imprisonment.

“But an exclusive focus on parental incarceration excludes many children who live in non-nuclear family contexts. In Australia these children are likely to be Indigenous,’’ Dr Besemer says.

“As with the imprisonment of parents, the imprisonment of a non-parent close family member is likely to affect children through its consequences for children’s developmental contexts, particularly through effects on their primary caregivers.

“It is thought that stress caused by imprisonment could impact on caregivers’ ability to supervise and attend to children’s needs, and more generally to reduce the caregiver’s ability to offer warm, consistent and effective parenting.

Professor Dennison said although the study was unable to directly measure changes in maternal behaviour, mothers’ reduced relationship satisfaction is likely to signify problems in the mother-child bond with at least one of her children.

“The ramifications of these long-term impacts to children’s secure relationship with their mother may be highly damaging.

“The prevention or reduction of parenting stress in families affected by close family imprisonment could have a protective effect on subsequent mother-child relationships.”