What are the effects of Parental Incarceration on Children?

Children are often considered the “hidden victims” of incarcerated parents. Once the parent gets behind bars, few think of the problems a child may have in dealing with this new life event and what it can do to their emotion, physical, social, educational, and financial well-being. Many of these children fall through the cracks of the system without being given a platform to be heard or acknowledged.

Many problems arise due to involvement within the criminal justice system. These challenges can be a psychological strain, antisocial behavior, issues at school, economic hardship, and even criminal activity. It’s hard to predict what will happen to a child with an incarcerated parent as research findings are mixed.

Since the “War on Drugs,” in the ’80s, the rate of children with incarcerated mothers jumped to 100 percent and fathers at 75 percent. It is estimated that 11 percent of all children may be at risk. Having a parent in incarceration is the only thing to consider for stressful situations for children. The whole range of the criminal justice program needs to be considered.

  1. Arrest.
  2. Pre-trial detention.
  3. Conviction.
  4. Jail.
  5. Probation.
  6. Imprisonment.
  7. Parole.

Each child is unique and handles things differently. Research has established that parent’s incarceration can prove threatening to the overall well-being of the child. 

  1. Child Criminal Involvement: There is some concern that a parent’s incarceration could lead to intergenerational criminal behavior. One statistic indicates they are six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. This seems to be higher with mothers that are incarcerated than fathers, but many times, these risk factors are difficult to understand or predict.
  2. Psychological Problems and Antisocial Behavior: Depression and aggression have been mixed and varies with gender, race, age, and even the family situation. Some antisocial behavior falls into criminal acts or persistent dishonesty. This can also include mental health issues and even drug use.
  3. Educational Attainment: There is a constant association between educational attainment and parental incarceration. Though more research needs to be done to provide a clearer picture, this is still a huge risk factor for children of incarcerated parents.
  4. Economic Well-Being: Many children have restricted financial resources when they have an incarcerated parent. Many times, the family’s income is 22 percent lower than normal and 15 percent after the parent’s re-entry into society. Children of incarcerated parents face a host of disadvantages like being less likely to live in a two-parent home or even have stable housing. 

With all these considerations, enhancing communications between the correctional facilities and the families is a good way to ensure the child’s safety net for the future and even help the re-entry of the incarcerated parent. These are critical to a child’s well-being, whether it be emotional, financial, antisocial, or even educational. Improving the system to hear and see the child’s point of view is necessary for their psychological and physical development.

Martin, Eric. March 2017. Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent Children. https://www.nij.gov/journals/278/pages/impact-of-incarceration-on-dependent-children.aspx


What feelings do children experience when having an incarcerated parent?

Children are emotional, to begin with. As they grow, so do these emotions. Added stress or huge change in life events can turn their world upside down. This is the case for children who have incarcerated parents. Many of them mourn the loss of this parent in their lives who was once there to take care of them. Others mourn what “could’ve been.” 

This tragedy is a reality for many children who are forced to go on with a parent in prison. These things are a sudden change for a child and are often too young to understand why. Understanding what a child goes through needs to be understood. This has a profound psychological effect on the child and changes how they view life compared to other children.

  1. Emotion Trauma: Consider the issue of a child’s emotions and mindset if they are present when a parent is arrested. 
  2. School Work Suffer: Kids have enough problems while in the public school system. Add in potential bullying when classmates learn that a child’s parent is in prison. This can lead to bad attendance and even their grades suffering. 
  3. Sudden Financial Crisis: Sometimes, the incarcerated parent was wage-earner. This alone can throw the family into an immediate crisis as the main source of income is now gone.
  4. No Warning: There’s really no way to prepare a child for this as arrest, and even incarceration is a sudden thing. 
  5. Worry About the Parent: A child knows the parent is in trouble. They also worry about things but may not understand why. 
  6. Separation by Distance to Prison: This is even harder for the child as many prisons can be a few hundred miles away and they have no control on whether or not someone will take them to see their parent. 

These kids are normal, like every other kid, but facing extreme life-changing situations. While they committed no crime, they are paying a cost they can’t pay due to another’s crime. This can cause confusing emotions and trauma that isn’t visible.

  1. Worry: They are worried about their incarcerated parent. Even if the parent-relationship is troubled, they also worry about whether their current caregiver can take care of them.
  2. Sadness: Child is dealing with a big loss and fall into depression. This can have a greater effect during the holidays or birthdays.
  3. Isolation: Social stigma can keep many children from opening up about their situation. This comes into play by avoiding conversations about the parent.
  4. Anger: This comes over time and after experiencing much disappointment and loss and is caused by a lot of hurts, and they feel they can’t take anymore.
  5. Guilt: Many kids feel a form of responsibility for their parent’s incarceration always wondering if they could’ve done something.
  6. Confusion: Many caregivers don’t tell the children that their parent is incarcerated. This can make a child afraid to ask, which causes confusion as to what’s going on.
  7. Fear: Abandonment is a genuine fear of children, along with the thought of never seeing their parent again. This can translate to other phobias in a child’s life.

While some of these emotions come and go, so it can be quite pervasive and stay over time. It’s important to research protective factors to help the child cope with the loss of an incarcerated parent. Their well-being depends on it. 

Prison Fellowship. Impact of Incarceration on Children. https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources/family/ministry-basics/impact-of-incarceration-on-children/

Keywords: Children of incarcerated parents/ Emotional issues of children of parents in prison

How many children have parents incarcerated in the US?

In America, the number of children with incarcerated parents is staggering. In 2010, it was estimated that 2.7 million children had parents that were incarcerated. At least another 10 million have experienced some form of parental incarceration within their lifetimes. To make matters worse, children of color are affected on a disproportionate level. 1 in 9 is African American compared to 1 in 57 being white. Half of these children are under ten years old. This is 7% off all U.S. children.

While the numbers reveal a whole host of information, history, in general, reveals more knowledge on this epidemic. For years, America has incarcerated people, there’s no debating this fact as our prison-for-profit system is expanding every year. As long as we’ve done this, there have been children affected by this.

Before weighing in on statistics or what may be empirically true, it’s important to consider what we know about children who have incarcerated parents. Many of these children have many issues involving negative social and academic outcomes, a high level of poverty, and many more. While the impact is difficult to impact due to the lack of large-scale studies, some points have been proven.

  1. Incarceration of parents can hurt childhood experiences: i.e., abuse, divorce, or even trauma that can affect long after childhood.
  2. Children are more at risk in difficult environments, especially poor, unsafe neighborhoods, abuse, problems in school, along with physical and emotional problems.
  3. More large-scale studies need to be done of children with incarcerated parents to pinpoint what these are and the range of problems.

This problem is close to becoming a tipping point in America as children, in essence, are sharing the sentence with their incarcerated parent(s). Many researchers believe these numbers are low as social stigmas make many families reluctant to report with any accuracy. To make matter worse, so children don’t even know their parent is even in prison, which can cause an unhealthy worldview. 

Many of these children face embarrassment when a parent goes to jail or assume it’s their fault that causes the incarceration of their parent. The social stigma and emotional problems are greater as self-esteem will be lower while other children may react with anger, defiance, and possibly a desire for retaliation, which can cause more issues with the law. These children of incarcerated parents are three times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. 

With numbers this high, it’s hard to get a fully clear picture of how many of these children are dealing with the incarceration of their parents. One thing is known that children who stay in regular touch with their parent do exhibit fewer problems like disruption or anxious behaviors. There is also evidence that suggests this lowers the recidivism rates. While the numbers are high and will likely grow, larger scale studies are needed to get an accurate measure of how many children are truly affected and what this means to them. Sullivan, Megan. Children of Incarcerated Parents in the United States: What We Need to Know and What

We Still Need to Learn. May 10, 2017. https://www.justicestrategies.net/coip/blog/2017/05/children-incarcerated-parents-united-states-what-we-know-and-what-we-still-need-le

Prison Fellowship. FAQS About Children of Prisoners. https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources/family/ministry-basics/faqs-about-children-of-prisoners/

Keywords: children of incarcerated parents/ staggering number of children with parents in prison

Harry S. Truman

“I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.” 

— Harry S. Truman

Stacia Tauscher

“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.” 

— Stacia Tauscher

Maya Angelou

Each child belongs to all of us and they will bring us a tomorrow in direct relations to the responsibility we have shown to them.

 – Maya Angelou