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The Impact of having an Incarcerated Parent

Parents are the most pivotal individuals in a child’s overall development. When a parent is missing from the family dynamic, it can create emotional, behavioral and mental issues for the child, and in extreme cases, cause trauma. For children of parents absent due to criminal behavior, the effects can be worse. More than 2.7 million children have incarcerated parents or formerly incarcerated parents. Statistically, communities of color that are underserved and have lower educational attainment are largely affected.

“Research finds that parental incarceration negatively affects children’s physical, mental, and emotional health,” writes Urban Institute. A child becomes displaced and can suffer from identity loss. The inward perceptions of self can be negative making the child anti-social and involve themselves in criminal activity. Too much stress factor in the child’s everyday life that cause a myriad of issues: behavioral and emotional that are extremely overwhelming. High levels of depression and anxiety can be linked to a child with an incarcerated child that create restlessness. It can inflict change in their physical appearance by increased fatigue and weight gain or loss as the mourn the physical presence of their parent. (Urban Institute).

According to the American Federation of Teachers, "Parental incarceration involves the removal of a mother or father from the child’s household or daily routine. This removal is a traumatic incident for many children and may be accompanied by other corresponding traumatic experiences, such as witnessing the arrest of a parent or encountering uncertainty regarding how long the parent will remain away from the household."

Many children are forced into the foster system where they bounce around to different families or live with distance family members. The child mourns what is normal and starts to lose their idea of how a family should function based on what society teaches us. Simultaneously, some children do benefit from an incarcerated parent because their current lifestyle is toxic and unstable. An abusive father or mother removed from a household can construct a new family unit that brings peace. It protects the child from feelings of despair that can elevate them into better expressions of self. Moreover, it can negatively impact the family’s finances and stability. The loss of income from the parental breadwinner can take away certain lifestyles causing adverse effects on life essentials to survive. (National Institute of Justice).

Children of incarcerated parents are impacted in ways that are more complex than we can ever imagine. Every circumstance is unique based on the child’s support system and resources. More systematic plans and procedures are needed to assist the challenges children face while adjusting to the separation of an incarcerated parent. If we focus on the betterment of the child there will be lower levels of generational incarceration by families. Inspiring them to feel empowered and supported without the fear of rejection by others matter most.


Kelley Traynham is a writer in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s

Fellows Program. NCCAA Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, NCCAA, chief communications officer.

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