Associations Among Mother–Child Contact, Parenting Stress, and Mother and Child Adjustment Related to Incarceration

  • Heather H. McClure
  • Joann Wu ShorttEmail author
  • J. Mark Eddy
  • Alice Holmes
  • Stan Van Uum
  • Evan Russell
  • Gideon Koren
  • Lisa Sheeber
  • Betsy Davis
  • J. Josh Snodgrass
  • Charles R. MartinezJr.
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Psychology book series (BRIEFSPSYCHOL)


Contact between incarcerated parents and their children has received increased attention due to potential effects of contact on adult adjustment, adults’ ability to parent their children effectively, and children’s adjustment during and after incarceration. This pilot investigation incorporated self-report and biological measures of stress to examine associations between various forms of mother-child contact, mothers’ cortisol levels derived from hair samples, self-reported parenting stress, and maternal and child adjustment (i.e., emotion dysregulation, depressive and other mental health symptoms). The sample comprised 47 incarcerated mothers with a child between the ages of 4 and 12 years. Mothers were assessed at T1 in prison, at T2 before release, and at T3 6 months after release to examine change and stability over time in mothers’ cortisol and adjustment, associations between mothers’ cortisol and adjustment, and associations between mother-child contact and mothers’ cortisol, adjustment, and recidivism. Caregivers provided reports on children at T1 and T3 to investigate associations among child adjustment, mother-child contact, and maternal stress and adjustment. Mothers’ cortisol levels remained stable in prison and increased significantly after release, which was in contrast to other aspects of mothers’ adjustment such as depressive and mental health symptoms that decreased before release and remained stable after prison. More frequent mother-child contact appeared to be beneficial for maternal stress. In contrast, more mother-child contact was associated with higher child internalizing behavior. Mother-child contact was also related to recidivism. Living with their children before and after incarceration, and more frequent contact after release were associated with a decreased likelihood of detention after release among mothers. At T3 after reunification, higher maternal parenting stress was related to children’s higher internalizing and emotion dysregulation. The implications of the findings are discussed.


Children Contact Cortisol Incarceration Mothers Parenting Prison Reunification Stress 



We thank the mothers and their families and the Oregon Department of Corrections and the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and their staff members for their participation in this study. Work on this manuscript was supported by the primary grant for this study, Award R34 MH 79911 from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), as well as by Award 90CA178/1/04 from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Children’s Bureau, Office of Child Abuse and Neglect. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH, the NIMH, or the ACF.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heather H. McClure
    • 1
  • Joann Wu Shortt
    • 2
    Email author
  • J. Mark Eddy
    • 3
  • Alice Holmes
    • 2
  • Stan Van Uum
    • 4
  • Evan Russell
    • 4
  • Gideon Koren
    • 5
  • Lisa Sheeber
    • 6
  • Betsy Davis
    • 6
  • J. Josh Snodgrass
    • 7
  • Charles R. MartinezJr.
    • 1
    • 8
  1. 1.Center for Equity PromotionUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA
  2. 2.Oregon Social Learning CenterEugeneUSA
  3. 3.Partners for Our Children, School of Social WorkUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  4. 4.Department of MedicineWestern UniversityLondonCanada
  5. 5.The Ivey Chair in Molecular ToxicologyWestern UniversityLondonCanada
  6. 6.Oregon Research InstituteEugeneUSA
  7. 7.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA
  8. 8.Department of Educational Methodology, Policy and LeadershipUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

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