Parental Incarceration and Its Impact on Children

Updated June 30, 2024 | Posted April 19, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
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More than 5 million U.S. children have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives. The incarceration of a parent can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence. But while states spend heavily on corrections, few resources exist to support parental incarceration. A Shared Sentence offers commonsense proposals to address the increased poverty and stress that children of incarcerated parents experience.

What Is Parental Incarceration?

Parental incarceration is an adverse childhood experience that removes the mother or father from a child's household and everyday life. The removal of a parent due to incarceration is often accompanied by other traumatic stressors, such as bearing witness to the parent's arrest and living with the stigma of having an incarcerated parent — which often leaves many children feeling isolated. The consequences of parental incarceration can be devastating, with many families struggling with economic hardships, uncertain living arrangements and even ineffective parenting by the non-incarcerated parent. As children are left to navigate this unstable environment, their mental health and emotional well-being often suffer significantly.

How Common Is Parental Incarceration?

Comprising 5% of the world's population, the United States accounts for roughly 25% of the world's prison population — easily solidifying the highest incarceration rate in the world. Most inmates in the U.S. are parents to minor children, and many of them lived with their children prior to their arrest. In 2018, it was estimated that 5 million children were experiencing — or had experienced — parental incarceration. Between 1980 and 2012, the number of children with incarcerated parents ballooned from 500,000 to more than 2.5 million. Not surprisingly, Black and Latino children face higher rates of parental incarceration than their peers — compounding the disadvantages they already face.

How Does Parental Incarceration Affect Children?

The effects of parental incarceration on children are wide-ranging and long-lasting:

  • Psychological - The chaos and upheaval that many children of incarcerated parents face make them especially vulnerable to myriad mental health challenges, such as:
    • Low self-esteem
    • Depression
    • Greater risk of ADD/ADHD
    • Sleep disorders
    • Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Behavioral - Changes in behavior often accompany the psychological effects of having an incarcerated parent. Children may display:
    • Increased aggression
    • Higher risk of delinquency
  • Social - Children of incarcerated parents often grapple with isolation and the stigma associated with their situation. As a result, their social development is disrupted, and they may show signs of
    • Withdrawal
    • Antisocial behaviors
  • Economic - Incarcerated parents leave behind children and families who struggle to manage their sudden loss of income. Economics hardships may include:
    • Housing instability
    • Increased risk of poverty
  • Developmental - When a parent is abruptly removed from the household, the disruption to a child's overall development can be catastrophic, leading to both short-term and long-term challenges, including:
    • Poor school performance
    • Lower educational achievement
    • Increased absenteeism

How Can You Help Children of Incarcerated Parents?

Fortunately, there are many ways for community stakeholders and mentors to provide valuable support to children of incarcerated parents. Here's how everyone can do their part:

  • Caregivers — Let kids be kids. Celebrate birthdays, holidays, field trips or family vacations. Encourage kids to talk about their feelings in a healthy way, and be honest with them, as much as possible. Find productive activities to help ease their strength, and tap into community resources.
  • Educators — Work hand-in-hand with the child's non-incarcerated parent. Be aware of any social or emotional concerns, and find ways to cultivate their talents and interests.
  • Social Workers — Help children maintain positive relationships with their incarcerated parent. Additionally, stay engaged with the incarcerated parent to help prevent the likelihood of foster care for the child.
  • Community Organizations — Advocate for services and programs that support children's well-being and mitigate trauma. Connect children to resources and mentors, and provide support during the reunification process.
  • Law Enforcement and Policy Makers — Follow child-sensitive protocols when arresting a parent. Offer parenting programs within corrections facilities to help the incarcerated parent. Finally, policy makers can require courts to inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated.

Parental Incarceration Statistics & Effects

Key Parental Incarceration Takeaway

Children Who Have Experienced Parental Incarceration

Nationally, the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood hovers around 5.1 million — a conservative estimate. Children with incarcerated parents are significantly less likely to live in neighborhoods that are able to be supportive of families.