The Effect of a Parent's Incarceration on a Child

Children need their parents to provide a home, clothing, food and other basic needs. Parents also supply love and support, which children need for proper growth and development. When a parent is incarcerated, it can have a negative impact on normal development, as well as a child's mental health. Approximately 1.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent in prison, according to the Justice Strategies website. If you have a child in your life that has a parent in prison, knowing what effect this has will allow you to seek out the appropriate intervention to help support him through this time, as well as encourage normal development and overall happiness.

Developmental Delays

When a child is separated from a parent, it negatively impacts proper development because the child is more focused on the absence of a parent than learning and growing. According to Michigan Family Impact Seminars, children with an incarcerated parent are less likely to learn self-control, independence and productivity 2. They are also more likely to display clinginess, academic deficiencies, language development delays, social withdrawal and regression behaviors, such as bed-wetting in potty-trained children, according to a 2007 article published in "Pediatrics."

Poor Mental Health

When children have a parent in prison, it negatively impacts their feelings of happiness and well-being. In addition to missing that parent, children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to show symptoms of depression, according to "Pediatrics." Children with a parent in prison are also more likely to experience ridicule by peers and social isolation, which can take an enormous toll on their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Older children who are depressed or looking for attention are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as using drugs and alcohol or having unprotected sex, according to Justice Strategies.

Bonding and Attachment

When a parent goes to prison, both the parent and the child miss out on key bonding and attachment time. In order to form a positive and close relationship with a parent, a child must have daily contact with his mom or dad. Having a parent in prison prevents a child from getting that one-on-one time. Over time, that can cause a child to have difficulties forming relationships with others, including other adult caregivers and peers. Without at least one caring and responsible parent, many children experience low self-esteem and lack of an adequate support system to help them navigate the challenges of the growing up years. According to a 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, not having an attachment to at least one parent can also lead to poor academic achievement, increased aggression and higher levels of anxiety.

Additional Effects

Children with a parent in prison often experience regular nightmares, particularly if they watched their parent get arrested or witnessed the crime that led to the incarceration. Incarceration also forces children to grow up too fast because they're often left to take care of themselves and they're also exposed to adult issues that they shouldn't know anything about, according to Justice Strategies 5. This often includes a heavy load of chores, such as cleaning and cooking, when children should be focusing on school and getting plenty of play time. Children with an incarcerated parent are also more likely to live in poverty or abusive homes, as well.