Skip to main content

Start seeing youth with incarcerated parents

By Sara Langworthy

How does incarceration affect the youth and families that you work with every day? Chances are, more than you know. You don't have to play too many rounds of six degrees of separation to find someone who's affected by incarceration. In 2011, 6.98 million people were incarcerated in the U.S -- about 1 out of 34 adults.

How many of those 6.98 million people have children? Sixty-one percent of women and 53% of men who are incarcerated are parents. In 2007, an estimated 1.75 million children under age 18 had a parent in a state or federal prison in the U.S. An estimated 1 in 15 African American children in the U.S. have a parent who is incarcerated.

In fact, there are more children with an incarcerated parent than there are with autism or juvenile diabetes.

Despite the shockingly high prevalence of parental incarceration, their children remain largely invisible as such. That's unfortunate, because they could use some extra help. We know that they are at higher risk for behavior problems, cognitive problems and delays in school.

In fact, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study indicates that individuals who had multiple risk factors, including having an incarcerated parent as a child, were at higher risk for many health problems later in life, including depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts. More recent research has found that maternal conviction and arrest is associated with youth's increased involvement with the juvenile justice system, and increased risky health behaviors.

Despite these staggering numbers and the disturbing health and education outcomes for these children, this issue has not received much attention from policymakers, practitioners, researchers or the general public.

So I ask you to think about it again: How does incarceration affect the youth and families that you work with every day?

Having an incarcerated parent may not be the only life turmoil these youth experience. In fact, there are probably many other, more easily recognizable risk factors that these youth endure. Having an incarcerated parent is linked to other risk factors including poverty, parental substance use, and parental mental health problems. These other risk factors may be more recognizable, and you as a practitioner, educator or provider may have better resources to handle those types of risk factors, but youth who have an incarcerated parent face a unique set of challenges and stressors.

Overwhelming numbers of youth are experiencing the affects of incarceration, yet society has done little to recognize and address the needs of these youth. However, that is beginning to change. Due to many recent initiatives to raise awareness of this important issue, resources are becoming more available, and these children's needs are being addressed. Meeting those needs starts with recognition on the part of those who surround youth everyday to provide understanding, support and assistance.
So I ask you again, one more time, how does incarceration affect the youth and families that you work with everyday?

Do you know? Will you ask? Will you start seeing these invisible youth?

-- Sara Langworthy, former policy coordinator,
Children, Youth & Family Consortium,
which is part of the Extension Center for Family Development

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Sara - thanks for bringing this important issue to this blog. It's something we all need to be aware of as we work with youth and the adults who work with youth as well. I'm wondering two things - is there research about what the mechanism is that explains why children with incarcerated parents have the health, learning, behavioral, and developmental problems they appear prone to have, based on the correlations? In other words, how does the experience of having an incarcerated parent "get under the skin?" And second, where might we turn to learn more about the resources you refer to near the end of your post?

  2. Thanks for your comment Cathy.
    Yes, there is certainly research out there about how challenging experiences throughout life, such as having an incarcerated parent, might contribute to poorer developmental outcomes. One of the most common explanations is what scientists call "toxic stress". Essentially, if children and youth are experiencing significant and prolonged hardship (poverty, homelessness, abuse, neglect, or the accumulated burdens of family hardship - like parental incarceration), the body releases stress hormones that can alter the way the brain functions, leading to disruptions in behavior and learning.
    The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University has a really nice synopsis of this phenomena here:
    As for additional resources on the topic of parental incarceration, there are a few great resources right here within UMN Extension:
    Read: Children with Incarcerated Parents, Children Youth and Family Consortium's Children’s Mental Health eReview ( publication on the topic of parental incarceration.
    Attend: Unbarred: Strengthening Families affected by Incarceration (, CYFC’s upcoming Lessons from the Field event on November 14th, 2013.


Post a Comment