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Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2193 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The purpose of the research paper is to highlight the different types of effects that having parents in jail has on children. This is a qualitative research which will provide data and stats on the impacts and behavioral challenges faced by children. This paper will discuss how parental incarceration affects grades, behavior, and emotional wellbeing’s of children. The paper will provide a clear insight on what becomes of the kids after the parents go away. 30 students were surveyed and asked to answer questions on what they believed were the effects of incarceration on children.


Mass imprisonment has been on a constant increases and the children of the inmates are left to pick up the pieces. Parental imprisonment is a growing problem that needs to be addressed, and more attention needs to be paid to the youths who need help transitioning to adulthood without their parents. The rates of paternal imprisonment vary significantly by race and ethnicity. According to study by (Grace and Maruschak, 2008) 6.7-11% among African American children, followed by 2.4-3.5% of Hispanic children, and .9-1.75% of non-Hispanic white children”.  The number of minor children with parents who are incarcerated has doubled within the last two decades. Parental incarceration has become something that many American children have to deal with. Parental incarceration has a huge toll on the mental health of the kids.

Review of Literature

The major question being discussed in this paper is how does having parents in prisons affects the child’s childhood and education?  Children with incarcerated parents have different challenges than children with free parents. There are some behavioral problems associated with children whose parents are behind bars. The goal is to highlight the intergenerational effects of parents imprisonment during the transition from children to adulthood. “conceptualizing parental incarceration as a source of stress is consistent with the several theoretical perspectives in the generational effects literature” (Hagan and Dinovitzer, 1999) Children are now being collateral damage once the parents are away. Parental incarceration also disrupts socialization, stigmatization, and psycho-social trauma for example social bonding, loss, and attachment perspectives. “Between 1991 and mid-2007, the number of parents of minor children held in the nation’s prisons increased by 79%. 52% of the state inmates and 63% of federal inmates are parents, with an estimated 1,206600 minor children, accounting for 2.3 % of the U.S population younger than 18” (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008).

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Parental incarceration involves significant emotional, social, economic losses to the family. According to a journal by Huebner & Gustafson “children with incarcerated parents have a higher risk of school failure, poor self-esteem, internalizing problems, antisocial and delinquent behavior, and subsequent incarceration themselves” (Huebner & Gustafson, 2007). Research shows that maternal incarceration is linked to even more profound child adjustment issues, which includes an even greater chance of intergenerational imprisonment. Some experts characterize children’s experience regarding parental incarceration as enduring trauma. Which contains “ongoing and repeated stressors that serve to impede development” (Myers, Smarsh, et al. 1999). Often children who experience separation due to incarceration are diagnosed with acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder because they express fear, hopelessness, horror. Children in with imprisoned parents often end up in the foster care where some are exposed to traumatic experience that correspond with family involvement in the criminal justice system.

There is a significant difference in grades between kids with incarcerated parents and free parents. Murray and Farrington found that “compared to boys whose fathers did not have an incarceration history, boys whose fathers had previously been incarcerated showed lower iq scores and lower achievement on standardized tests at age ten.” (Murray and Farrington 2005). Other studies showed that boys with incarcerated moms had lower test scores than the norm.  A study by Hanlon, Bletchley, and Bennett- Sears revealed that 49% of their sample 88 children who were affected by maternal incarceration had behavioral problems at school which subsequently lead to suspension, and 45 percent showed little to no interest in school. These behavioral problems negatively impacted the student’s success and led to increased drop out rates. “In an investigation of 58 percent adolescents with incarcerated mothers Trice and Brewster compared the school performance of adolescents to that of the child’s best friend and found that adolescents with incarcerated parents were more likely to drop out than their best friends”. (Trice and Brewster’s, 2004). 

Parental incarceration and child wellbeing

Another way parental incarceration affects the child is that the physical absence can be traumatic. Witnessing a parent get arrest can be very jarring for young kids. That trauma has the ability to sometimes hinder the child’s emotional and cognitive growth. Sometimes children of incarcerated parents experience shame and stigma which may impede their social and learning interactions with other kids.  Parental incarnation also puts a strain on family life. it increases economic hardships because of legal debts, and loss of a pay check.

Maternal versus paternal incarceration

Which has a worse effect  on the child’s development having a mother in jail or a father in jail. Paternal incarceration affects the child’s well being differently than maternal does. Maternal incarceration may bring more family instability than paternal. Often times when a father gets incarcerated the children continue to live with their mother, but many times when a mother gets incarcerated the child gets exposed to many living conditions like living with the father or other relatives, or in the foster care system. The switch in household can be potentially detrimental to the child’s wellbeing.

Parental incarceration and behavior.

Researchers have inquired the range of externalizing behaviors such as disruption, hyperactivity, and aggression. And internalizing behaviors such as anxiety, inhibition, and depression. Prosocial behaviors like task completion, empathy, and emotional regulation among children who have parents in prison. Research found that negative association can attribute poor child behavioral outcomes directly to the parent’s incarceration. According to a study by (Wildeman and Turney, 2014) “focusing exclusively on maternal incarceration, investigate a wide set of externalizing and internalizing behaviors in middle childhood concluded that while children of incarcerated parents experience higher levels of behavioral problem, this is due to selection rather than effects of incarceration.

Research Questions

  • How do think having incarcerated parents affects the kids?
  • Who do you think is more likely to have behavioral problems, kids with incarcerated parents or kids with free parents?
  • Do you think having incarcerated parents affects child’s emotional wellbeing?
  • Do you think some kids are bullied for having incarcerated parents?
  • Which do you think affects kids more, paternal incarceration or paternal incarceration?
  • What effect do you think parental incarceration has on grades?
  • Do you think children of incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated as adults?


For this research paper the most import resource that was used was the Bluford library database, “parental incarceration” and “children” were the key words used for most of the paper. The data base then found peer reviewed journals that focused on incarcerated parents and their children to probe furthermore into the topic, behavioral, academic, and emotional state was searched in the database in order to gain more insight. When the peer reviewed journals were presented extensive research was done in order to find the journals that connected the most to the topic at hand and also had other cited sources that were relevant to the research. Then a total of 30 students were asked to do a survey on what they thought would be the effects on kids having parents in jail.


The strengths of the paper were the research section, the library database provided extensive documents that aided in the completion of the paper. Having the research of others helped in the writing of the paper.


The weakness of the paper was the student survey because it was hard finding students who wanted to participate. It was also hard getting the students to complete the survey in a timely matter without taking a way too much time from what they had to do. The results of the survey were inconclusive because the students had varying opinions on how parental incarceration would affect the children, it wasn’t a one size fits all.


The results were inconclusive, several students did not believe that because a child had incarcerated parents, he/she would become incarcerated as adults. The students survey did not completely align with the findings of my search, the students did not completely agree that children with incarcerated parents were doomed, but they did agree that having incarcerated parents did bring certain limitation for the children. They agreed on the emotional trauma that the absence of a parent brings. Some students highlighted that not all the incarcerated parents were positive role models and that the absence created by incarceration provided some kids with breathing space and a chance to grow and be productive adults. Not every parent who goes to jail is missed and sometimes some kids are better off in the foster care system or with other relatives.


In conclusion parental incarceration has a lot of consequences for not only the parents but also the children being left behind. Parental incarnation impairs the children’s wellbeing and puts the at risk of having behavioral problems, problems in school or even worse finding themselves I the same spot as their parents in prison. Finding show that young men who are exposed to paternal incarceration express externalizing behavior such as destroying things or demanding a lot of attention. Children with incarcerated parents appear withdrawn or anxious. “recent studies provide some evidence that children with incarcerated parents, and particularly those with incarcerated fathers have trouble progressing though school, for example paternal incarceration during early or middle childhood has been associated with poorer cognitive outcomes among nine year old children, as measured by reading comprehension, math comprehension, and memory”(Turney and Goodsell, 2018)

Reference Page

  • Holly, F., & John, H. (2017). Maternal and paternal imprisonment and children’s social exclusion in young adulthood. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 105(2). (2017). Retrieved April 30, 2019, from INSERT-MISSING-DATABASE-NAME
  • Foster, H., & Hagan, J. (2015). Punishment regimes and the multilevel effects of parental incarceration: Intergenerational, intersectional, and interinstitutional models of social inequality and systemic exclusion. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 135. Retrieved from http://ncat.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ncat.idm.oclc.org/docview/1735657252?accountid=12711
  • Turney, K., & Goodsell, R. (2018). Parental incarceration and children’s wellbeing. Future of Children, 28(1), 147-164.
  • Haskins, A., Amorim, M., & Mingo, M. (2018). Parental incarceration and child outcomes: Those at risk, evidence of impacts, methodological insights, and areas of future work. Sociology Compass, 12(3). doi:10.1111/soc4.12562
  • Wildeman, C., & Turney, K. (2014). Positive, negative, or null? The effects of maternal incarcerationon children’s behavioral problems. Demography, 51(3), 1041


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