The Psychological Effects of Women Incarceration on their Young Children

The Psychological Effects of Women Incarceration on their Young Children

Over the years, the rate of women incarceration in the United States has grown and less attention has been given to the problem. Statistics show that about two-third women are mothers to children under eighteen years of age and more than 1.5 million of U.S. children’s parents are incarcerated for a long period of time. A comparative sense of change in male and female imprisonment indicates that between 1980 and 1993, the U.S. male prison population grew by 200 percent while the female prison population grew by more than 350 percent (Arditti, 2012). This paper discusses the growth of women incarceration and highlights some of the major issues that result from their incarceration.

First, young children are affected economically. If the imprisoned mother previously provided for her family, the incarceration of that parent may lead to economic deprivation, resulting in anxieties that affect children. The effects of economic scarcity can be direct and indirect. These effects include not just the loss of income that the imprisoned parent may have provided to the family, but also the input that the lacking parent may have made to her family (Arditti, 2012). However, it has been noted that older children are likely to take the responsibility of attending to their younger ones, and they may also be forced to drop out of school in order to supplement household income. Due to financial difficulties, children in such situations are prone to emotional and psychological problems which include educational failure, aggression, depression, and withdrawal.

Secondly, parents, especially mothers, play an important role in a family hence the loss of a parent can influence the children in various ways. Their absence leads to lack of supervision, support, and a role model. Even if the parents and siblings are involved in criminal activities, they have the ability to direct their young family in the right direction (Banks, 2003). The control and socialization theory tends to see children as positioned in a struggle of commitment between family members and peers. Therefore, with the absence of a parent, the balance of this struggle favors antisocial peers. Children cannot identify people who might support them and they feel that they have no one to talk to except for their mothers. Such children display several symptoms of stress disorder, namely; feeling of anger and guilt, crimes and arrest, depression, shame, sadness, grief, social isolation, guilt and flashbacks about their mother (Banks, 2003). The difference in parenting responsibility is a direct reflection of the social situation in which the lion share of parenting falls on the mother.

Some mothers may be pregnant during incarceration, but few prisons in the United States allow mothers to keep their newborn children with them during this period. In most cases, they are given a few days to be with their infants before they return to prison, therefore, the mother lacks the opportunity to bond with a newborn infant. When the mother is released, the child will likely have emotional and behavioral problems since he/she has not developed an emotional bond and attachment to the mother (Banks, 2003). Even if the parent-infant bond has developed, for example, for infants who have been with their mothers for the first 8 to 12 months of their life time, the interruption associated with parental incarceration will likely affect the value of child’s attachment to the mother. Thus, young children whose mothers are incarcerated are likely to have emotional and psychological problems (Banks, 2003).

Parental imprisonment is usually followed by a period in which poverty, child abuse and neglect, marital conflict and an overall familial uncertainty is witnessed. These conditions may lead to increased rate of problem behavior in children. On the other hand, without actual proof of the child’s living and behavior situation before imprisonment, it becomes impossible to attribute the problem of behavior to incarceration. Re-location and Placement with alternative caregivers are major interruptions in the children’s lives. A similar set of problems also arise when children are subject to other familial discord such as divorce. (Hetherington & Kelley, 2002)

School-aged children of incarcerated mothers are affected with school-related problems such as poor grades and instances of aggression. Moreover, younger children also tend to develop a fear of going to school and fail to attend school for several weeks resulting in poor academic performance and classroom behavior. Sometimes children are also mocked by their peers a result of parent incarceration. This might lead to social isolation that generally affects their academic performance. The issue of incarceration of a mother has become a serious child welfare problem. As a parent, a mother has the responsibility of supporting her child. However, in the event of her incarceration, she is deprived of the ability to do so and hence is forced to depend on relatives and friends to become caregivers to her child. Recently, several voluntary agencies have recognized special programs for children of incarcerated mothers which aim at ensuring the child’s wellbeing.



Arditti, J. A. (2012). Parental incarceration and the family: Psychological and social effects of imprisonment on children, parents, and caregivers. New York: New York University Press.

Banks, C. (2003). Women in prison: A reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.

Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). Divorce reconsidered: For better or worse.