Much literature exists on the nuances of family structure
and its inextricable relation to optimal child development.
There are considerable resources on single-parent households
resulting from death and divorce, for instance; but there
has been, and there still remains, to this day, an insufficient
amount of research on the effects of paternal incarceration
on the lives of children. Studies have reported that children
suffer adverse effects in response to the absence in the family
of a father (Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981), but the effects
of paternal incarceration have not been extensively explored
(Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003). However, it is
clearly apparent from the little material that exists that
paternal incarceration is becoming problematic. Paternal incarceration—in
its direct and indirect effects alike, to varying degrees—is
detrimental to child socio-emotional development, often posing
irreparable damage, absent any mitigating protective factors.
loss of a father through incarceration has affected two-parent
households in the past, but with the dramatic increase in
the number of males being incarcerated since 1990 (Arditti
et al., 2003), the resultant number of single-mother households
has similarly increased. The most recent national account
for the number of males in State and Federal prisons indicates
that 55% of State prisoners (or 593,800) and 63% of Federal
prisoners (or 74,100) reported having at least one minor child—a
combined total of 1,372,700 minor children (Mumola, 2000).
It was also found that 20.2% of fathers in State prison and
32.9% of fathers in Federal prison specified living with their
children in a two-parent household. The minimum number of
children, then, who lived with both a mother and a father,
is 144,326, which accounts for roughly 10% of the total number
of children affected by parental incarceration. These 10%
are the focus of this study.
Paternal incarceration creates a temporary single-parenting
system, in which the mother acts as sole guardian, but imprisonment
tends to produce far worse effects on children than do other
causes of parent-child separation (Lowenstein, 1986). Separation
due to death or similar causes disrupt the family, yet these
happen to provide a “focal concern around which the
remaining members can rally and mitigate the impact of their
loss”; quite to the contrary, separation due to imprisonment
rarely elicits any such response because of the stigma with
which it is associated (Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981, p. 84).
Typically, a child faced with the social stigma of paternal
incarceration will often also encounter embarrassment and
shame, which may in turn further inhibit the ability of the
child to adequately adjust to the anxieties resulting from
the separation through incarceration (Hannon et al., 1984;
Lowenstein, 1986). The deleterious effects on child behavior,
of course, are that prolonged periods of shame and embarrassment
may promote depression or behavior typical of withdrawal,
such as an unwillingness to engage in social interactions.
Unlike other causes for paternal separation, paternal absence
due to imprisonment is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, which
takes on different meaning depending on the manner in which
the particular cause for the incarceration is perceived—either
as being “normatively approved” or as “bearing
a stigma” (Lowenstein, 1984).
While there is a correlation between paternal incarceration
and subsequent child behavioral, emotional, and psychological
problems, these concerns may not necessarily be the sole result
of the separation, per se: maladaptive behavior could have
existed at the time of incarceration because of faulty parenting
structures. Gabel (1992) has argued that the discordant home
characteristics and abusive parent management practices, such
as child abuse, are better predictors of child behavior than
is the effect of paternal separation. This claim has been
further substantiated by research, suggesting that “children
of incarcerated parents may be at risk long before parents
are incarcerated” (Johnson & Waldfogel, 2002, p.
461). Other researchers agree with these claims, but they
also add that these at-risk children may behave worse as a
result of paternal incarceration (Arditti et al., 2003). Nevertheless,
other studies (Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981) have continued
to show that child problems existing prior to incarceration
become more pronounced after separation; the study also indicated
that new problems emerge after the separation. It matters
little whether paternal absence initiates or aggravates behavioral
problems: in either case, absence of the father promotes acting-out
The direct effects associated with paternal incarceration
are many, but two factors clearly stand out above all else:
parent-child separation and enduring traumatic stress (Johnston,
1992). Both of these can affect each stage of child development,
but this study is only concerned with the socio-emotional
development of children in middle childhood, from 7-11 years
of age, since the average age of affected children is 8 years
of age (Mumola, 2000). The separation is a source of emotional
injury and there is a sense of anger, sadness or grief, and
anxiety. Lowenstein (1986) has found that 40% of children
experienced emotional and health problems, including recurring
nightmares and a sudden fear of darkness, both of which reflect
a fear of isolation from others. Other studies showed depression
to be the most prominent emotional problem during the time
of paternal incarceration (Gabel, 1992). “Even in households
that were disrupted by parental crime, children who have an
incarcerated father miss his affection (92%) and feel lonely
(59%) as a result of his absence” (Johnston, 1995, p.
75). Trauma—a pronounced psychological shock in response
to a disastrous event—interferes with the “process
of learning to control emotions” and “impairs
the… ability to recover from future traumatic events,”
a result of which is the “development of trauma-reactive
behaviors, particularly aggression,” attention and concentration
problems, anxiety states, and withdrawal (Johnston, 1995,
pp. 76-77). As is clearly evident, psychological, emotional,
and behavioral problems are all intricately linked, meaning
that one will likely lead to the others.
Children in middle childhood generally attempt to achieve
a sense of industry and to gain the ability to work productively.
Their aggressive behavior and attention or concentration difficulties
resulting from emotional responses to trauma tend to create
academic and disciplinary problems, such as truancy, which
prevent future academic achievement (Hannon et al., 1984;
Johnston, 1992). Lowenstein (1986) found that 20% of children
studied suffered from behavioral problems, including hostile
responses and acting out, deterioration in school work, drug
problems. It was also found that 40% of these children, the
same who suffered from emotional and health problems, suffered
from interactional interpersonal problems, the most prominent
of which included confrontations with mother and inability
to relate to peers. In view of these immense socio-emotional
problems in direct response to paternal separation, it is
common for these children to develop long-term maladaptive
coping patterns, absent the availability of coping mechanisms
or mitigating protective factors (Fritsch & Burkhead,
1981; Johnston, 1995; Lange, 2000; Lowenstein, 1986).
The indirect factors—that is, the subsequent factors—affecting
child development deal primarily with the manner in which
the primary caregiver—the mother, in this instance—is
able to resolve problems at home and provide quality care.
Many of the problems exhibited by children in response to
paternal separation may be aggravated or mitigated, depending
on the individual coping skills of the mother (Lowenstein,
1986). “Because there is fairly good evidence that many
children’s ultimate adjustment is based on the nature
of the home environment in which they live, attention to the
parenting practices of the [mother] is crucial” (Gabel,
1992, pp. 42-43). Gabel (1992) also indicated that maternal
warmth, monitoring, and supervision, all of which are protective
devices, meant to aid children in their coping process, are
likely to be absent, since many mothers may share the antisocial
qualities that the father possessed or are overly stressed
themselves. If a mother is unable to cope with her own situation,
the child will likely fare much worse in most circumstances.
Mothers “experience risk on several dimensions: via
emotional stress, parenting strain, work-family conflict,
financial strain…and social stigma” (Arditti et
al., 2003, p. 201). Two more indirect factors are worthy of
notice here: deception and economic factors. Mothers find
it more beneficial to explain to their young children that
their fathers are absent for various false reasons, because
mothers are afraid that if told the truth, children may pattern
their behavior after the imprisoned parent or become frightened.
When children are deceived, however, they find it difficult
to discuss feelings about the paternal absence, and they may
even begin to grow suspicious of the lying parent, often becoming
insecure prior to acting out (Hannon et al., 1984; Lange,
2000). Interestingly enough, mothers are likely to leave their
places of employment after paternal incarceration, because
they soon become overburdened with child care needs in the
face of financial deadlines (Arditti et al., 2003). Other
observations (Hannon et al., 1984; Lange, 2000) have shown
that paternal incarceration leads to significant adverse financial
effects. Families may experience a decrease in income, could
possibly rely on public assistance, and may have to relocate
to a more affordable area. This has complications of its own:
children will have to readjust to a new environment and adapt
to a new school and peers in the midst of paternal separation—this
is daunting for anyone.
Paternal incarceration—in its direct and indirect effects
alike, to varying degrees—is detrimental to child socio-emotional
development, often posing irreparable damage, absent any mitigating
protective factors. Though resiliency and caregiver protective
factors may forestall some of the socio-emotional problems
associated with paternal separation through incarceration,
it is highly unlikely that all problems will be resolved without
public policy efforts. Likewise, more attention needs to be
given to the effects on children; otherwise, the purpose of
incarceration will become ineffectual at best, antithetical
at worst: a new group of delinquents will be ready and coming.
Arditti, J. A., Lambert-Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003).
Saturday morning at the jail: Implications of incarceration
for families and children. Family Relations, 52(3), 195-204.
Fritsch, T. A., & Burkhead, J. D. (1981). Behavioral reactions
of children to parental absence due to imprisonment. Family
Relations, 30(1), 83-88.
Gabel, S. (1992). Children of incarcerated and criminal parents:
Adjustment, behavior, and prognosis. Bulletin of the American
Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 20(1), 33-45.
Hannon, G., Martin, D., & Martin, M. (1984). Incarceration
in the family: Adjustment to change. Family Therapy, 11(3),
Johnson, E. I., & Waldfogel, J. (2002). Parental incarceration:
Recent trends and implications for child welfare. Social Service
Review, 76(3), 460-479.
Johnston, D. (1992). Children of offenders. Pasadena, CA:
Pacific Oaks Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
Johnston, D. (1995). Effects of parental incarceration. In
K. Gabel & D. Johnston (Eds.), Children of incarcerated
parents (pp. 59-88). New York: Lexington Books.
Lange, S. M. (2000). The challenges confronting children of
incarcerated parents. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 11(4),
Lowenstein, A. (1986). Temporary single parenthood—The
case of prisoners’ families. Family Relations, 35, 79-85.
Mumola, C. J. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children.
NCJ 182335. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics.
About the writer: Jose Santana attends
the University of Maryland, College Park,
where he is studying Criminology and Criminal Justice. He
plans to conduct
research on the effects of inadequate parenting on child development
an effort to more fully understand the cause and nature of
may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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