Teens with Incarcerated Parents: Developmental Trajectories and Interventions

Adolescents with currently or previously incarcerated parents are at much higher risk of delinquency and criminal justice involvement. How can this cycle be broken?

Over the past four decades, the incarceration rate in the United States has skyrocketed, resulting in nearly one in every hundred American adults being incarcerated at a given time. The majority of adult prisoners are parents, often to multiple children and teenagers. As a result, approximately 3 million minors in the U.S. have at least one parent currently behind bars, and up to 8 million–approximately 1 in 14–will experience parental incarceration at some point in their childhood or adolescence. Extensive research has shown that parental incarceration puts youth at risk of a range of negative developmental outcomes, leading some researchers to call them the “invisible victims” of the criminal justice system.

Researchers have accumulated convincing evidence that parental incarceration has a direct, negative effect on their children’s mental health, behavior, and academic outcomes, even after accounting for pre-incarceration risk factors, such as poverty, parental mental health problems, and exposure to domestic and community violence. These effects have been documented among adolescents and even adult children who had been reunited with their parents, suggesting that the negative impact is long-lasting and not just limited to the period of incarceration. Researchers have consistently found that having had a parent incarcerated increases children’s risk for “problem behaviors,” such as acting out in school and skipping school, which often leads to school drop-out and more serious delinquency during adolescence, such as drug use, theft, and assault. Long-term longitudinal evidence suggests that this adolescent delinquency results in more serious crimes committed in young adulthood, making children of incarcerated parents more likely to become incarcerated themselves.

Social scientists have uncovered several processes that link parental incarceration to adolescent delinquency. Unlike other reasons for parental separation, such as death, illness, or even divorce, parental incarceration carries a heavy stigma, and youth with incarcerated parents are typically met with alienation and marginalization rather than sympathy and support. Due to actual or anticipated discrimination, teens with incarcerated parents often are reluctant to seek out social support from friends, teachers, and extended family members. Rather, they may become socially isolated or affiliate with antisocial peers. The stigma of parental incarceration can also impact adolescents’ identity development, as others see them, and they begin to see themselves, as future criminals (i.e., “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”); this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Contributing to this problem, youth whose parents are incarcerated are often sent to live in overcrowded, impoverished households and thus have more unsupervised and unstructured time, increasing risk and opportunities for antisocial behavior. Parental incarceration also leads to significant financial strain due to loss of income during incarceration and difficulties securing employment after release. As a result, teens with previously incarcerated parents might turn to illicit means of making money, such as theft and drug distribution, out of necessity.

To disrupt this intergenerational transmission of criminality, governmental agencies, researchers, and child advocates alike have called for multilevel prevention strategies. Interventions that work directly with youth, such as mental health services, academic supports, and mentoring programs, have the potential to ameliorate mental health symptoms, prevent educational disruptions, and increase prosocial involvement among children and teens with current or previously incarcerated parents. Although youth-focused efforts are important, we also need higher-level interventions. These include measures to increase financial well-being for families, such as job-skills training and employment support for previously incarcerated parents, and alternative sentencing practices for would-be prisoners with children, like diversion programs and community sentencing. Finally, social scientists have stressed the importance of addressing policies and societal factors that have led to the mass incarceration of parents, particularly among families of color, such laaw enforcement policies toward minor drug offenses and race- and class-based segregation in neighborhoods and schools. By and large, children and teens with currently or previously incarcerated parents have not committed a serious crime, and yet they are also punished. It is only through evidence-based prevention efforts, expansions of family support services, and earnest reconsideration of existing policies that this unjust cycle can be broken.

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Matthew Hagler is currently studying clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston with Dr. Jean Rhodes. His research focuses on adult-youth relationships and youth mentoring interventions.