June 2021




  • 2.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent who is incarcerated
  • Children with incarcerated parents are 6X more likely to be incarcerated themselves compared to their peers
  • Children with incarcerated parents are 3X more likely than their peers to develop depression

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Caregiving for Children Experiencing Parental Incarceration

 By: Melissa Donadio, M.A.

 There are currently 2.7 million children living in the U.S. whose parents are incarcerated, and approximately 10 million children total have experienced parental incarceration at some point (The Sentencing Project, 2012). Children whose parents are incarcerated face a wide range of challenges that can impact their mental health. Along with experiencing a disrupted family life and separation from caregivers, children with incarcerated parents have increased rates of additional Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), including witnessing violence in their communities or household, exposure to drug and alcohol abuse, and neglect (Turney, 2018). The emotional trauma that occurs can be exacerbated by practical difficulties and living with the social stigma of having a family member in prison or jail. For example, about half of incarcerated parents were the only source of income for their child (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), and 46.8% of children reported being bullied due to their parent’s incarceration (Lee et al., 2019). Therefore, it is important for caregivers, particularly those fostering children with incarcerated parents, to understand the potential impacts of parental incarceration on children’s behavior and to promote effective tools for helping youth cope with these stressors.

While each child’s reaction is unique, research has shown that parental incarceration poses threats to children’s emotional, behavioral, and educational well-being (Martin, 2017). For instance, children with an incarcerated parent are three times more likely than other youth to develop depression, and they are twice as likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and anxiety disorders (Turney, 2014). These rates are also shown to be higher for African American children than Caucasian children (Martin, 2017). Children whose parents are incarcerated are more likely than their peers to engage in delinquent activities, such as theft, assault, and underage drinking and smoking (Murray, Farrington, & Sekol, 2012), and are consequently six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves (Cox, 2009). Further, these children are more likely to skip school and experience increased rates of suspensions and expulsions due to aggressive behaviors (Martin, 2017). Despite these challenges, caregivers of children with incarcerated parents can promote resilience by providing healthy social supports and offering tools to cope with stressors.

Social support has been demonstrated to be a strong protective factor for children with an incarcerated parent, specifically from caring adults such as caregivers, a nonincarcerated parent, grandparents, and teachers (Luther, 2015). These adults can help promote resilience by providing a trusting and stable source of comfort that does not place judgement on the child or their family. Having at least one supportive adult can help mitigate the social stigma experienced by these children (Cox, 2009). Further, supportive adults can offer access to conventional activities, such as engagement with sports or school clubs, which can increase children’s sense of safety. They can also support children by helping them to envision positive life experiences and encourage expression of emotions in healthy and pro-social manners. The following tips may be useful for caregivers to consider:

  • Create a safe environment for the child to express their feelings without judgement.
  • Reassure the child that they are not alone and validate the child’s feelings.
  • If appropriate, encourage communication and/or visitation with the incarcerated parent.
  • Share honest and age-appropriate information with the child.
  • Connect the child with other social supports and activities that encourage skill building and self-esteem.
  • Prioritize stability and safety in relationships and practical situations, such as living arrangements and school attendance.



Cox, M. (2009). The relationship between episodes of parental incarceration and students’ psychosocial and educational outcomes: An analysis of risk factors [Doctoral Dissertation, Temple University]. ProQuest Dissertation Publishing.

Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Retrieved from: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

Lee, J., Johns, S., Smith-Darden, J., Sung Hung, J., & Vosion, R. (2019). Family incarceration and bullying among African American adolescents: The mediating roles of exposure to delinquent peer norms, trauma, and externalizing behaviors. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 100(4), 422-432. doi: 10.1177/1044389419852017

Luther, K. (2015). Examining social support among adult children of incarcerated parents. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 64(4), 505–518. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12134

Martin, E. (2017). Hidden consequences: The impact of incarceration on dependent children. National Institute of Justice, 278. Retrieved from: https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250349.pdf

Murray, J., Farrington, D. P., & Sekol, I. (2012). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 175-210. doi:10.1037/a0026407

The Sentencing Project. (2012). Parents in prison. Retrieved from: https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/parents-in-prison/

Turney, K. (2014). Stress proliferation across generations: Examining the relationship between parental incarceration and childhood health. Journal of Health and Social Behaviors, 55(3), 203-319.

Turney, K. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences among children with incarcerated parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 89. 218-225. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.04.033