Children of Incarcerated Parents: Effects and Solutions

When parents are incarcerated, the children of these parents will face difficult situations. One of the most important consequences that children of incarcerated parents suffer is the disruption of parent and child attachment.

As we all know that parent and child attachment affects children cognitively and behaviorally and can even lead to behavioral and social problems later in their life.

Incarceration Burdens the Family

The incarceration of parents creates significant burdens for the families. This is especially true for already vulnerable families.

Incarceration increases the likelihood of unemployment, family instability, socioeconomic disadvantage, mental health problems, low self-esteem for child, and substance use, among many things.

All these, of course, but children of incarcerated parents in a very vulnerable position. Moreover, the family of the children are often having to deal with the issues above.

As such, the incarceration of a parent becomes another source of harm for the already vulnerable children. The situation puts many children in disadvantaged positions that worsen their well-being.

Both paternal and maternal incarceration is harmful. With the former being harmful to most children.

Sometimes parents get divorced because one parent is imprisoned, so the child also has to deal with this parent’s divorce. This will only make the situation worse for the child.

Research has found that children are harmed by parental incarceration. This is true regardless of the reason why the parents are convicted, be it drug crimes, violent or nonviolent crimes.

In some cases, the children of incarcerated parents appear less harmed. But, this is only when the parents are especially violent, have serious mental health problems, or substance problems.

The Hidden Costs of Incarceration

The incarceration of parents can lead to household instability, the risk of homelessness for the children, and the increase of dependence on public assistance.

There are also hidden costs of paternal incarcerate the family of the inmate has to pay. A study found that to maintain contact with incarcerated parents, the families spend up to a third of their income.

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Paternal incarceration translates to indirect costs not just for the families but also for the taxpayers as well. It leads to so many problems.

For the children, the problems are in the form of the increase of behavioral and mental health problems, reduced school performance, internalized anxiety and depression, aggression, and externalizing problems, among others.

Children with Incarcerated Mothers

The problems and solutions to each problem certainly vary depending on the situation. Moreover, Children of incarcerated parents are a high-risk group, especially children of incarcerated mothers. The effects of maternal incarceration are not as clear as the paternal one.

Some research suggests that the incarceration of mothers inflicts significant harm to the children. Some others suggest that the harms are inflicted not by the incarceration of the mothers but rather by other risk factors.

What are the risk factors according to this research? There are many risk factors. The most significant risk factors being economic hardship and financial instability that already existed before the incarceration of the mothers.

These are two major risk factors that drive poor outcomes of the children of incarcerated mothers.

Components of Incarceration that Can Impact Children

  • Witnessing criminal activity that leads to arrest and/or the arrest
  • Child growing up with divorced parents
  • Fear for the safety of their parents
  • Concern and fear for their younger siblings
  • Changes in homes, caregivers, and schools
  • The inability for the remaining caregiver to meet the basic needs of the child
  • Inability to communicate with the incarcerated parent regularly
  • Misunderstanding, confusion, and fear of where their parent is when they will return, and the criminal justice process
  • Shame, social stigma, and isolation
  • Guilt for the arrest of their parents and belief that they somehow could prevent it
  • Chaotic and sterile visitation experiences
  • Lack of necessary support and services
  • Difficult family as well as neighborhood environments, which may include poverty, violence, high crime rates, and substance abuse

The Impacts of Incarceration for Children of Incarcerated Parents

The experience of the incarceration of their parents is often traumatic for children. The primary factor for this the parent and child attachment.

It is the emotional bond between a caregiver like a parent and a child which becomes the foundation for future relationships. The sense of security of a child is based on their relationships with familiar caregivers.

The disruption of this attachment can lead to later difficulty for the child. This is especially true if the primary caregiver of said child is the incarcerated parent.

Parental incarceration impacts children of incarcerated parents in many ways. From health and behavior, education, community, and family factors, economy, stigma to future criminal justice involvement.

Health and Behavior

The incarceration of a parent affects the health and behavior of a child. Due to the incarceration, children may experience internalizing behaviors such as withdrawal, shame, anxiety, depression, guilt, and hypervigilance.

They may also experience externalizing behaviors such as aggression, hostility towards others, and anger as well. Children may also exhibit antisocial behaviors, ranging from lying to criminal acts.

Children of incarcerated parents are 2 times more likely to have mental health problems such as depression and 3-4 times more likely to have delinquent or antisocial behaviors.

Parental incarceration associate with Conditions like Speech problems, developmental delays, behavior problems, learning disabilities, and ADD/ADHD. Those are some impacts of parental incarceration on child development


How parental incarceration affects children with incarcerated parents is not yet clear. On one hand, there are studies that show children of incarcerated parents have poorer academic achievement, higher rates of failure as well as drop out.

On the other, there are studies that show there is an only association but not causal links between academic failure and parental incarceration.

Often children have to be prepared for bullying in school by their schoolmates. This, sometimes worsens the psychological state of the child more severely.

Community and Family Factors

For many children, the incarceration of their parents is an addition to the hardships that they already face.

Hardships such as mental health problems and poverty are associated with parental incarceration. However, these associated hardships can neither explain nor predict the outcomes of the children on their own.

Also, parental incarceration doesn’t necessarily have negative outcomes for the children. A recent analysis suggests that children whore are exposed to parental incarceration had more adverse childhood experiences that those that are not.

According to this analysis, children who are exposed to parental incarceration are

  • 9 times more likely to be abused
  • 8 times more likely to experience substance abuse
  • 5 times more likely to experience parental death
  • 4 times more likely to experience parental separation/divorce and mental illness

Parental incarceration does indeed threaten the well-being of a child. Yet, there are some cases where parental incarceration benefits the child. For example, if the incarcerated parent is abusive towards the child.

Or, if the incarcerated parent has a substance abuse or untreated mental illness, which creates an unsafe environment at home for the child.


Parental incarceration hurts children not only psychosocially but also economically as well. This economic impact may have a lasting impact on families.

The estimation is that over 50% of parents in state prisons were the main financial support for their children before their incarceration. Undoubtedly, this loss of income affects the family as a whole.

When a parent is incarcerated, the family lost income. As a result, they often struggle to meet the basic needs of a household like food, clothing, housing, utilities, and transportation.

A 2015 survey has shown that the incarceration of a family member causes 2 in 3 families to struggle in meeting their basic needs.

The economic impact extends further than that, unfortunately. The family still has to pay for the court fines and legal fees associated with incarceration.

Families often pay over $13,000 for these court-related costs. About 1 in 5 families reported that they have to take out a loan to pay for these costs.

This financial burden affects women the most and many of them are mothers. Often, the family must make adjustments so they can meet their ends.

This can lead to various disruptions for the child. These disruptions include unstable housing, food insecurity, changing childcare facilities or schools, different caregivers, and so on.

The economic impact also extends after the incarcerated parent has served their sentence. Many formerly incarcerated parents may find it difficult to find work.

The reason is that there are employment policies that avoid hiring individuals with arrest or felony records. As a result, supporting themselves and their families will be difficult for the formerly incarcerated parents.


Children of incarcerated parents also suffer from shame and social stigma associated with parental incarceration. Some children may even internalize their feelings.

Often, children are teased more in school because of the incarceration of their parents. Consequently, these children don’t want to share what they experience and express their feelings due to not feeling safe or fear of being bullied.

The formerly incarcerated parents obligated to pay for child support. If they can’t find a job, oftentimes they will not be able to pay for child support.

Some even have to make difficult choices: meet their basic needs or pay for child support. If they don’t pay child support, they are at risk of re-incarceration.

Future Criminal Justice Involvement

About 70% of children of incarcerated parents will be involved in the criminal justice system and 6 times more likely than the other children, according to common reports.

These claims, however, have been disputed by experts in the field as they don’t have data and research to back them up.

In 2015, a systematic review has found that while children with incarcerated parents do have increased risk of future criminal justice involvement than their peers.

The risk, however, not as high as in the report. According to the systematic review, the risk is 3 times more likely, not 6 times more likely.

How to Help a Child Whose Parent is in Jail

Convicted criminals must pay for their crimes. This is how criminal justice works. However, children of incarcerated parents should not suffer from the incarceration of their parents.

Like a child with divorced parents,these children are vulnerable and might develop negative behaviors. There are two things that decrease the likelihood of this happening, namely understanding and awareness and visitation.

Making the Child Understand and Aware of the Situation

When a parents of a child are incarcerated, the child’s caregivers often don’t know what to tell a child whose parent is in jail.

The absence of the parent will no doubt raise a question, which sooner or later will be asked by the children. Caregivers must explain the situation so the child can understand.

Making a child understand why their parent is absent is not an easy task but it will help them to deal with the situation better.

If children of incarcerated parents have a good understanding of the situation, the likelihood of these children to adapt to the changes in a positive way increases.

Books can help to make children understand and aware of the situations.

A book like When a Parent Goes to Prison by Deonisha Thigpen helps the younger audience to understand what breaking the law means, how the justice system works, and support them by explaining that there are other children experiencing the same situation they are in.

Children’s TV shows can also help children to understand and aware of the incarceration of their parents as well. Sesame Street, for example, has episodes meant for children with incarcerated parents.

The popular TV show explains incarceration with a visual explanation, which helps children to explain their situation to their peers.

Bringing the Children to Visit Their Incarcerated Parents

When children of incarcerated parents understand the situation they are in, they can visit their incarcerated parents in prison.

Keep in mind that prison visitations in real life are often different from TV and film portrayal. Visitors may need to wait for a long time before they can visit an inmate.

Waiting and children don’t sit well together. As such, this can be a challenging task, especially with young children.

Sometimes visitors have to wait for hours only to discover that their request to visit an inmate has been denied. When they get permission, the interaction of parent and child is only in visiting rooms.

Blessing in Disguise

Despite all bad effects to the children, this condition also has benefits for a child whose parents are in jail. Some of the benefits for children with incarcerated parents are that they can get scholarships.

The Government provides scholarships for children of incarcerated parents. Children can also be raised by adoptive parents. A harmonious foster family is certainly better than a chaotic biological family


Convicted criminals must pay the price of their crimes. That is something we all expect. Although that is justice, no child should suffer from the consequences of the actions of their parents. Of course, that includes children of incarcerated parents as well. Parent incarcerations affect children in many ways and what they experience can impact them for the long term.

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