What Happens to Kids When Their Parents Go to Prison?

A new study sheds more light on the long-term behavior affects on kids with incarcerated parents.

by Raz Robinson
FLICKR restless_mind

Over 2.5 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States. It’s more than in any other country in the world, and as a result, there are almost five million children who have a parent behind bars. Researchers have long wondered what happens to kids when their parents go to prison. A new study in Pediatrics sheds some light on the long-term health and behavioral effects on kids and found that having an incarcerated parent increases the likelihood that a child will smoke cigarettes, engage in dangerous sexual behaviors, abuse alcohol and illegal drugs, and avoid going to the doctor.

“The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world. With the climbing number of parents, especially mothers, who are incarcerated, our study calls attention to the invisible victims ⏤ their children,” says lead author Nia Heard-Garris, MD and Instructor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We shed light on how much the incarceration of a mother versus father influences the health behaviors of children into adulthood.”

The surveyors spoke to over 13,000 adults between the ages of 24- and 32-years-old, ten percent of whom had a parent incarcerated at some point during their childhoods. On average, the kids were around 10-years-old by the time their parent had been locked up. According to the results, respondents whose mothers had gone to jail were twice as likely to engage in sexual activities for money and twice as likely to use a clinic or emergency room over a primary care physician. For kids whose fathers did time, the outcomes were slightly different. Their survey found that those with incarcerated fathers are 2.5 times as likely to abuse intravenous drugs like heroin.

A separate study from, a group that wants to make communities healthier and safer by reaching out to those who have been affected by the prison system, reached similar conclusions. It noted that kids between the ages of 2- and 6-years-old bear the brunt of separation anxiety, traumatic stress, and sometimes, even the survivors’ guilt that stems from a parent being incarcerated. It also pointed out that these issues can both impair the child’s ability to deal with future traumas, as well as cause them to “experience developmental regressions” and “poor self-concept.” Beyond that, children with incarcerated parents are up to three times as likely to go to jail themselves.

Still, more research needs to be done. “By pinpointing the specific health-harming behaviors that these young adults demonstrate, this study may be a stepping stone towards seeking more precise ways to mitigate the health risks these young adults face,” said Heard-Garris. “Hopefully, future studies will teach us how to prevent, screen for, and target negative health behaviors prior to adulthood.”