Children’s Mental Health, Drug Use, and Educational Performance After Parental Incarceration

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Unprecedented numbers of children experience parental incarceration worldwide. Families and children of prisoners can experience multiple difficulties after parental incarceration, including traumatic separation, loneliness, stigma, confused explanations to children, unstable childcare arrangements, strained parenting, reduced income, and home, school, and neighborhood moves. Children of incarcerated parents often have multiple, stressful life events before parental incarceration. Theoretically, children with incarcerated parents may be at risk for a range of adverse behavioral outcomes. A systematic review was conducted to synthesize empirical evidence on associations between parental incarceration and children’s later antisocial behavior, mental health problems, drug use, and educational performance. Results from 40 studies (including 7,374 children with incarcerated parents and 37,325 comparison children in 50 samples) were pooled in a meta-analysis. The most rigorous studies showed that parental incarceration is associated with higher risk for children’s antisocial behavior, but not for mental health problems, drug use, or poor educational performance. Studies that controlled for parental criminality or children’s antisocial behavior before parental incarceration had a pooled effect size of OR  1.4 (p .01), corresponding to about 10% increased risk for antisocial behavior among children with incarcerated parents, compared with peers. Effect sizes did not decrease with number of covariates controlled. However, the methodological quality of many studies was poor. More rigorous tests of the causal effects of parental incarceration are needed, using randomized designs and prospective longitudinal studies. Criminal justice reforms and national support systems might be needed to prevent harmful consequences of parental incarceration for children.

Related Topics

  • Behavioral Health
  • Child Welfare
  • Fathers/Partners
  • Parenting
  • Trauma