Parental Incarceration

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The rate of imprisonment in the United States has tripled between 1980 and 2000, making incarceration a growing area of national concern. At least 1.9 million minors have lost a parent due to incarceration, drawing developmental researchers’ attention to the ramifications of parental incarceration on these minors (Davis and Shlafer, 2016). A 2007 report from the United States Justice Department revealed that at least 50.4% of children ages 10-17 have a parent in a federal prison (Kautz, 2017). Although numbers have changed since then, the report demonstrates that adolescents make up a significant portion of minors affected by parental incarceration.

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Previous research has mainly focused on the effects of incarceration on children of younger ages, but recently, researchers have directed their studies toward the ramifications of parental incarceration on adolescent development in particular, as adolescent development involves children undergoing hormonal changes, shifting their relationship focus from their parents to their peers, and making their own decisions. Although adolescence involves children becoming more autonomous, they still need guidance from their parents when it comes to navigating such a critical stage in their lives; therefore, during adolescence, the stress of parental incarceration-former or current- combined with rapid developmental changes can result in mental and physical health problems (Kautz, 2017; Moretti & Peled, 2004). In addition, these adolescents are at risk for engaging in antisocial behaviors such as aggression and substance abuse (Davis and Shlafer, 2016).

This paper is meant to give a brief account of research that not only covers the parent-child relationship through the lens of attachment theory but also highlights the consequences of parental incarceration and parent-child separation on adolescent development. In addition, I will provide an overview of research-based interventions designed to moderate these negative effects. My desire is that correctional facilities gain more awareness of the significance of the parent-child relationship and work to help incarcerated parents and their children maintain and nourish their bonds.

Problem Statement

Parental incarceration contributes to unhealthy adolescent development. Unhealthy adolescent development can manifest itself in the form of mental and physical health problems and unhealthy relationships with peers. In addition, the effects of parent-child separation can potentially echo across time. Theories and research provide some insight as to why it is important for correctional facilities to minimize the effects of parent-child separation.

According to attachment theory, quality of parenting influences the attachment style between a child and his or her parents. Research has demonstrated that there are three types of attachment styles that could develop: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. The secure attachment style is ideal. This attachment style is characterized by children who are confident that their parents will comfort and guide them when needed and who therefore express more willingness to explore their environments. It was once thought that after infancy, attachment style is set in stone. However, along with characterizing attachment styles, research has revealed that although the attachment style developed during infancy has a prominent role in shaping the rest of a child’s development, the quality of the parent-child bond is dynamic- influenced by factors such as stress- and still affects developmental outcomes (Moretti & Peled, 2004).

During adolescence, attachment style can change for better or for worse. The child, who is now experiencing neurological, cognitive, and social changes, needs his or her parents to help him or her navigate this stage. Adolescents who are securely attached to their parents are less likely to engage in excessive drinking, drug use, and risky sexual behavior. They are also less likely to suffer from mental health problems- e.g., aggression. In addition, they are more likely to use constructive coping skills and have healthier relationships. Unlike adolescents with secure attachment styles, adolescents with insecure attachment styles are more likely to suffer from mental health problems and engage in risky behavior. These adolescents have a higher chance of committing suicide (Moretti & Peled, 2004). Since incarceration of a parent during adolescence promotes deterioration of the parent-child bond, it can result in emotional instability and risk-taking behaviors. (Midgley & Lo, 2013).

Studies pertaining to the relationship between former or current parental incarceration and its impact on adolescence support the idea that parental incarceration negatively impacts adolescent development. Resulting mental health problems sometimes reveal themselves in the form of antisocial behavior. A study that explored the relationship between incarceration of a parent and adolescents’ experiences of social exclusion zoned in on these adolescents’ peer behaviors. The researchers found that they were more likely engage with peers who demonstrated antisocial behavior such as getting drunk, skipping school, and fighting (Cochran, Siennick, & Mears, 2018). Other researchers have found an association between parental incarceration and adolescents engaging in theft and marijuana use (Swisher & Shaw-Smith, 2015).

In one study, researchers found that compared to children of parents who had never been incarcerated, adolescents with formerly incarcerated parents were twice as likely to report using tobacco and marijuana and 1.5 times as likely to meet the DSM criteria for substance abuse or dependence. Adolescents with currently incarcerated parents were twice as likely to to report recent alcohol use and binge drinking, 2.4 times as likely to meet DSM criteria for substance abuse and dependence, and 3.9 times as likely to have received treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. These comparisons are critical because adolescents with a history of substance use are at a greater risk for dependence, disruptive behavior, and major depressive disorder in adulthood, emphasizing the necessity of an intervention that will mitigate the parental incarceration’s effect on adolescents (Davis & Shlafer, 2016).

These external behaviors and mental health problems are perhaps manifestations of the emotional issues adolescents are facing due to the deterioration of the parent-child bond as a result of incarceration. More research is needed in order to provide substantial evidence. Thankfully, interviews conducted with those affected by parental incarceration during adolescence have allowed researchers to get a better idea of their inner experiences. In an interview conducted with young adults who had a parent incarcerated during adolescence, researchers discovered that some of the participants felt that incarceration made it difficult for them to trust and want to interact with the incarcerated parent.

However, some of the participants felt that they were able to rebuild trust with their incarcerated parents through open and honest communication and with their subsequent caregiver’s support. In addition, open and honest communication with their incarcerated parent was tied to less identity confusion, identity development being a key aspect of adolescence (Kautz, 2017). The researchers throughout the studies above overlap in that they cite the importance of the parent-child relationship and that its deterioration due to incarceration likely has a role in adolescents’ mental health problems and engagement in delinquent behaviors. Figure 1. Depiction of the relationship between factors that influence an adolescent’s emotional experience of parental incarceration. Reprinted from “The Emotional Experience of Parental Incarceration from the African-American Adolescent Perspective,” by S. Kautz, 2018, Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, pp. 1-13, Copyright 2018 by Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma.

Proposed Solution

There are currently some programs in place aiming to mitigate the effects of parental incarceration on adolescent development. A few of these programs, such as Girl Scouts Beyond Bars and Living Interactive Family Education, focus on increasing contact between the child and his or her incarcerated parent. Another program- the Deferred Prosecution Unit-Social Workers in Family Services(DPU-SWIFS)- is a therapeutic program that provides children with an environment where they can discuss their feelings about their parents’ incarceration as well as share how they have been coping with it. The goal of the program is to lower the risk of the child ending up in a correctional facility like his or her parent (Miller,2006). Limitations of these programs, however, are that Girl Scouts Beyond Bars only focuses on daughter’s relationships with their mothers, and DPU-SWIFS does not work on mending the parent-child relationship whose role has been determined to be significant during not only childhood but also adolescence.

Some correctional facilities offer programs that aim to change incarcerated parents’ parenting skills. However, some researchers believe that correctional facilities should switch gears by focusing on changing incarcerated parents’ attitudes toward parenting. These researchers cite growing up in poverty, having had dysfunctional parents and exposure to poor-quality parenting, having mental health problems, and possessing certain personality characteristics as factors that contribute to an incarcerated parent’s inability to engage in positive parenting behaviors. Therefore, they created a parenting course that intertwined elements of attachment theory and psychotherapy. The parenting course was 48-hours long and taught by clinical-counseling graduate students at Glen County Rehabilitation Center in San Bernardino County in California. The course spanned four weeks, the class meeting twelve hours per week. Before and after the program, the researchers had the parents complete assessments in regards to parenting attitudes and child rearing practices (Kamptner, Teyber, Rockwood, & Drzewiecki, 2017).

The post assessments revealed an increase in knowledge of child development and child guidance skills, a decrease in attitudes and behaviors that contribute to child abuse and neglect, and-for female participants- a decrease in psychological distress. However, the results did not indicate that parents increased in empathy. The researchers cited that this could be attributed to the parents being less likely to have grown up in an empathetic environment. They did however, note that some of the parents expressed verbally that the program led them to realize that parenting is about their children’s needs. The researchers saw this as evidence that their program, which includes the parents receiving empathy in regards to their childhood environments, does help the parents develop empathy, a necessity for healthy relationships.

The researchers mentioned that one limitation of their study is that they could only assess the program’s effectiveness based off the parents’ self-reports since they did not include the children in the program. Therefore, as a solution to the ramifications of parental incarceration on adolescent development, and as a modification to the program developed by these researchers, other correctional facilities can implement this program along with the graduate students tailoring focus based on how the parents interact with their adolescents, who would also be given the opportunity to participate (Kamptner et. al, 2017).


Research articles on the effects of parental incarceration on adolescent development mostly reveal that adolescents with previously or currently incarcerated parents are more likely to socialize with peers who engage in delinquent behaviors, are more likely to have been treated for drug or alcohol abuse, and are at risk for dependence, disruptive behavior, and major depressive disorder in adulthood. The extent to which the deterioration of the parent-child bond impacts adolescent development is of increasing interest to developmental researchers. However, correlational studies only increase researchers’ knowledge of the extent of the relationship between parental incarceration and unhealthy adolescent development.

They do not account for “why,” meaning it is hard to know the extent the quality of parent-child bond plays a role in the emergence of negative developmental outcomes. Interviews of these adolescents and research on adolescent-parent attachment indicate that the deterioration of the parent-child bond does play a role in how an adolescent experiences and reacts to the incarceration of his or her parent. By modeling the Glen County attachment-based psychotherapeutic program and involving the adolescents, correctional facilities will give incarcerated parents a chance to heal from their past, grow in knowledge of child development and healthy parent-child interactions, and repair the bond between them and their adolescents. Correctional facilities, therefore, have the potential to mitigate some of the ramifications of parental incarceration on adolescent development.


  1. Cochran, J. C., Siennick, S. E., & Mears, D. P. (2018). Social Exclusion and Parental Incarceration Impacts on Adolescents’ Networks and School Engagement. Journal of marriage and the family, 80(2), 478–498. doi:10.1111/jomf.12464
  2. Davis, L., & Shlafer, R. J. (2016). Mental health of adolescents with currently and formerly incarcerated parents. Journal of adolescence, 54, 120–134. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.10.006
  3. Davis, L., & Shlafer, R. J. (2016). Substance Use among Youth with Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Parents. Smith College studies in social work, 87(1), 43–58. doi:10.1080/00377317.2017.1246797
  4. Kamptner, L. N., Teyber, F. H., Rockwood, N. J., & Drzewiecki, D. (2017).
  5. Evaluating the Efficacy of an Attachment-Informed Psychotherapeutic Parenting Program for Incarcerated Parents. Journal of Prison Education and Reentry,4(2), 62-81. doi:10.15845/jper.v4i2.1058
  6. Kautz, S. V. (2017). Adolescent Adaptation to Parental Incarceration. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal,34(6), 557-572. doi:10.1007/s10560-017-0493-5
  7. Kautz, S. V. (2018). The Emotional Experience of Parental Incarceration from the African-American Adolescent Perspective. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma,1-13. doi:10.1007/s40653-018-0232-x
  8. Midgley, E. K., & Lo, C. C. (2013). The Role of a Parents Incarceration in the Emotional Health and Problem Behaviors of At-Risk Adolescents. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse,22(2), 85-103. doi:10.1080/1067828x.2012.730350
  9. Miller, K. M. (2006). The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need for Effective Interventions. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal,23(4), 472-486. doi:10.1007/s10560-006-0065-6
  10. Moretti, M. M., & Peled, M. (2004). Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Paediatrics & child health, 9(8), 551–555.
  11. Swisher, R. R., & Shaw-Smith, U. R. (2015). Paternal Incarceration and Adolescent Well-Being: Life Course Contingencies and Other Moderators. The Journal of criminal law & criminology, 104(4), 7.
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Parental Incarceration. (2019, Nov 26). Retrieved from