Effects of Incarceration
on Children of the Incarcerated



To book this seminar, contact Michael DeLeon at 856-691-6676,
or email to michaeldeleon@steeredstraight.org

Presentation to:

CASA of Cumberland County
120 W. Broad Street, Bridgeton, NJ 08302

Effects of Incarceration of Children of the Incarcerated

The First Principle of NIDA’s (National Institute on Dug Abuse, NIH, USDHHS), 16 Prevention Principles is: Prevention programs should enhance protective factors and reverse or reduce risk factors. The same principle holds true when dealing with at-risk and high-risk children. Caring for children of the incarcerated is best done by enhancing protective factors and reversing or reducing risk factors.

More than one in forty children in the United States has a parent in prison. The loss of a parent to incarceration means a crisis for that child. Concerned people in all settings are dealing with children of prisoners and their caregivers daily, but in most cases without benefit of training or specific information.

Having a parent in prison or jail poses different challenges for the child at each stage of development.

Infancy: the first year of life

It may seem that a baby less than one year old would not react to the incarceration of a parent, but this is an important stage of development. Infants are learning to connect or attach to their caregivers. They are learning to trust that adults are there to meet their needs. In this attachment stage, infants may sense the absence of the incarcerated parent. They may even miss a parent that was inconsistently available to the child prior to incarceration. If a primary caregiver parent “disappears” to go to prison, it will seriously interfere with the development of trust. Attachments can develop between infants and their new caregivers. But the trust and basic attachment tasks of this stage are threatened by multiple placements, and by any further disruptions in care giving relationships.

Toddlers: 1 and 2 year olds

Toddlers want to see if their attachments to the important adults in their world will hold up to their new needs. They need to run away and they need to say “NO.” Practicing these new verbal and motor skills will make the adults react in ways that feel controlling to the toddler. Toddlers want to be independent, not controlled—but they also want to feel safe. The tug between the desire for independence and the need to be attached and dependent makes this a particularly difficult age for children who are separated from a parent.

The toddler expresses these feelings and conflicts through behaviors that are annoying at best and rage provoking at worst. The tantrums and negativity that characterize this stage of development can really challenge any caregiver. Caregivers of children of prisoners pour emotional and physical resources into managing life in the criminal justice system and have little left for coping with a toddler’s extreme upsets.

Pre-schoolers: 3-5 years

This is often called the age of opposition, power and control battles and magical thinking. At this stage of development, children need to prove to themselves that they are separate and unique, that they are themselves and not their caregivers. “If I cooperate with you, I become you. And since I am me, not you, I will not cooperate and if you make me, I will hate you and wish you away.” This is not really a thought but more a gut instinct in most 4 to 6 year-olds. The new demands made by the adult world for self-control may lead children at this age to apply magical thinking and fantasy to the circumstances of their parent’s incarceration.

Pre-schoolers believe they are responsible in ways that are both illogical and unreasonable. They may believe that they wished the parent away when they were mad at them. They may regress in behavior, experiencing bed-wetting, sleeplessness, and eating disruptions. They may also develop fears, nightmares, and a return to the aggressive tantrums of toddler hood. Pre-school children need to know that they have some influence on adults to get their needs met.

Maintaining a connection to the incarcerated parent may be most critical at this stage of development to avoid feelings of guilt, loss of control, powerlessness, and loyalty conflicts that could have lasting consequences.

Early School-age: 5-8 years

The grade school child is beginning to replace parents as the center of their universe. These children will experience sadness at the separation, but have moved out into the world, are learning new skills, and are focused on their peer group. At this stage of development, children do understand the concept of “crime and punishment.” As one first grader put it, ”My Mommy is doing a really long time out.” As they begin to focus on affiliating with other children, however, they become aware of the stigma of parental  incarceration.

Early school-age children need  to experience success and develop a sense of  competence, with their adults and with peers. This makes them vulnerable to taunts from schoolmates about parent’s arrest or incarceration. They are not yet able to articulate the story or the feelings well enough to both satisfy peers and avoid upsetting or embarrassing the family. This conflict between affiliation and family loyalty can lead children to avoid school, develop physical ailments, and sometimes stop talking unless they are at home.

Pre-adolescence: 9-11 years

Pre-adolescence is the stage of social emotions. Children struggle to understand the fact that “right and wrong” can vary from family to family. They are striving to learn about their own feelings about peers and family members and to understand the meaning behind the behaviors of others. Adults need to provide labels for children’s feelings without judging them. Adults also need to provide children with good role models and teach children communication skills by saying what they mean and listening with compassion. Preadolescents are also making more choices on their own about homework, activities, and friends. They need to be respected for their opinions and tastes. They may choose to distance themselves from the relationship with an incarcerated parent, partly to exercise their choice but also to avoid embarrassment.

Finally, as children strive to understand rules and consequences and to have empathy for others, adults in their world must be honest and genuine. Adults who act scared or angry but say “I am fine” will seriously confuse the developmental process of preadolescents.

Such mixed messages may lead to acting out in an effort to understand what is really going on.


Teens are out in the world, trying to figure out who they are, where they are going, and who they want to go with them. They are also balancing taking risks and avoiding danger.

Many adolescents with incarcerated parents have experienced multiple separations from the incarcerated parent due to previous imprisonments or a chaotic lifestyle. Their experience has often included addictions, financial instability, caregiver stress, failing schools, and communities lacking in resources. Adolescents are often expected to assume adult roles. They may be left for long periods without supervision. They can suffer from ambivalence about their incarcerated parent. They can, all at once, fear that they will turn out like their incarcerated parent, attempt to be like them, and fiercely reject them. They also have diminishing hope that their parents will return to them.

Keep in mind that children will react in many different ways to their parents’ imprisonment. These reactions depend on their age, personality, incarcerated parent’s gender and family structure.

CASA volunteers are mentors to children, in more ways than one. Mentoring as a strategy for helping at-risk children has burgeoned over the past few decades. As mobility has increased, children have lost some of the bonds that once were provided by grandparents and other elders in extended families. These losses deepen when children have a parent or parents in prison. Mentors can provide the mature, consistent attention that children of incarcerated parents desperately need. Mentors can make a significant difference in the lives of these most vulnerable children.

When dealing with children of the incarcerated, their parents (whether on visits or telephonically), or with extended family members, it would be helpful to keep in mind:

• Know your biases.
• Listen with empathy and without judgment.
• Balance understanding and compassion with advice and information.
• Share information about how the parents’ circumstances may be affecting the child without criticizing the parent.
• Practice framing observations and opinions in ways that parents can hear without becoming defensive.
• Recognize that children and families of prisoners often take bad news, hear advice, and follow through with suggestions best when the giver of information is:

    ◊Most like them.
    ◊Speaks the same language.
    ◊Indicates awareness and acceptance of the realities of their lives.
    ◊Does not judge or condemn them or their incarcerated family member.

For a plethora of information on this important matter, Steered Straight, Inc. recommends you visit

    The Children of Prisoners Library at FCN (Family Corrections Network)
    The Children of Prisoners Library at FCN
    32 Oak Grove Road, Palmyra, VA 22963,
    434/589-3036, 434/589-6520 Fax,
    Copyright Family and Corrections Network, 2003

Also, there are many other websites to research:

    www.steeredstraight.org - Steered Straight, Inc.

    www.cwla.org - Child Welfare League’s Resource Center for Children of Prisoners

    www.fcnetwork.org - Family and Corrections Network

    www.soros.org - Open Society Institute

Direct inquiries and comments to:
Email: michael.deleon@steeredstraight.org
Surface Mail: Steered Straight, Inc.;
P.O. Box 842
Millville, NJ 08332-0842
Telephone: (856) 691-6676