Health care providers need to know that several factors can influence the intensity of a child’s reaction to parental incarceration.
These factors include:
• Family Dynamics and Capacity
• Details of the Crime and Incarceration
• Available Supports
• Continuously use new skills and try various strategies as they respond to the child’s ever-changing physical and emotional needs.
• Modulate the child’s exposure to the world and keep them safe.
• Interpret social expectations to guide learning and growth.
Each stage of a child’s development includes a primary developmental task for the child and a corresponding parenting response. The incarceration of a parent poses different challenges at each stage.
Age: Birth – 1 1/2 (One and a half year)
In the attachment stage, infants may sense the absence of the incarcerated parent even if that parent was inconsistently available to the child. If a primary caregiver parent “disappears” to go to prison, it will seriously interfere with the development of trust.
Trust can develop between infants and multiple caregivers but the trust and basic attachment tasks of this stage are threatened by
multiple placements and disruptions in the relationships with primary caregivers. Infants may also develop anxious attachments or regulation difficulties in response to stress in the family, which also interferes with attachment, trust and the ability to predict the reactions of others.
Toddlers-Autonomy /Emotional Safety
Age: 1 1/2 – 3 (one and a half to three years)
In the separation or autonomy stage of development, toddlers seek to test the quality of their attachments in the face of new motor and verbal skills. The tug between the desire for independence and autonomy and the need to be attached and dependent makes this a particularly difficult age for children who are separated from a parent.
The toddler expresses these feelings and conflicts through behaviors that are annoying at best and rage provoking at worst. The tantrums and negativity that characterize this stage of development can really challenge caregivers as they pour emotional and physical resources into managing life in the criminal justice system.
Caregivers may react in angry or unpredictable ways. The base of security and emotional safety that toddlers need may seem unavailable. This can increase toddlers’ anxiety and resulting negative behaviors.
Preschooler Differentiation/ Power and Influence
In the differentiation stage children seek to establish emotional or psychological separateness from their primary attachment figures. They strive to prove their uniqueness particularly from the same gendered parent. The other parent serves often as a refuge from what can be an intense struggle. This is also the age of power and control battles and magical thinking. “If I cooperate with you, I become you and since I am me, not you, I will not cooperate and if you make me I will hate you and wish you away.” This is not a conscious thought, but rather an unconscious motivator of behavior.
The new demands made by the adult world for self-control may also lead children of this age to apply magical thinking and fantasy to the circumstances of their parents incarceration. They believe that they are responsible in ways that are both illogical and unreasonable. They also use “transducer reasoning”…if two things happen at the same time, they are related. This further connects the child’s behaviors with the adult’s distress and circumstances. Children, who have a parent leave for prison, (particularly a same gender parent) may truly believe that they wished them away when they were in the midst of the struggle for power and hating them for the powerlessness. When a child’s opposite gendered parent is incarcerated it eliminates the opportunity to use that parent as a refuge from the struggle. In both cases, pre-school children may exhibit symptoms of distress. They may regress in behavior, experiencing bed-wetting, sleeplessness, and eating disruptions. They will also develop fears, nightmares and a return to the aggressive tantrums of toddlerhood. Pre-school children need to know that they have some influence onadults to get their needs met. Maintaining a connection to the incarcerated parent may be most critical at this stage of development to avoid feelings of loss of control, powerlessness and loyalty conflicts that could have lasting consequences.
Early School Age/ Affiliation and Choice
The grade school child is beginning to replace parents as
the center of their universe. They
will experience sadness at the
separation but have moved out
into the world. They are learning
new skills and focusing on the
peer group. This age child is also
beginning to understand that there
are problems and solutions but
they have not developed a mature
ability to reason from one to the
other. At this stage of
development, children do
understand the concept of “crime
and punishment.” As one first
grader put it, “My Mommy is
doing a really long time out.”
However, as they begin to focus
on affiliating with other children,
they become aware of the stigma
of parental incarceration.
Early school age children need to
be successful and to develop a
sense of competence with adults,
but more so with peers. This
makes them vulnerable to taunts
from schoolmates about parent’s
arrest or incarceration yet unable
to articulate the story or the
feelings well enough to satisfy
peers and to avoid upsetting or
embarrassing the family.
This conflict between affiliation
and family loyalty can manifest
itself in somatizations, school
avoidance or phobia, selective
mutism and poor school
Self and Reading Others
This is the stage of social
emotions. Children struggle to
understand codes of ethics that
vary from family to family. They
are striving to learn about their
own emotional reactions to peers
and family members and to read
the cues of others. Adults need to
provide labels for children’s
feelings without judging them.
They also serve as role models
and teach children
communication skills by saying
what they mean and listening
Pre-Adolescents are also making
more choices on their own, about
homework, activities and friends
and need to be respected for their
opinions and tastes. They may
choose to distance themselves
from the relationship with an
incarcerated parent, in part to
exercise the choice and also to
avoid the embarrassment.
Finally, as children strive to
understand rules and
consequences and to have
empathy for others, adults in their
world must be honest and
genuine. Acting scared or angry
but saying “I am fine” seriously
confuses the developmental
process of this age and may cause
acting out behavior in an effort to
get at what is really going on.
All of this is tremendously
difficult for families that are
fragile or overwhelmed by
managing without the
incarcerated parent. Family
members will give children many
mixed messages and many of the
children’s feelings will be
unacceptable to the family.
Older school aged children will
need help with evolving social
values in the wake of parental
incarceration and the family
reaction to it. They are at risk for
a host of behavioral problems as
they “express” the feelings that
are not allowed by the family
through oppositional and defiant
or even delinquent behaviors.
They will also need resources for
resolving the emotional conflicts
that are raging within themselves
and in relationships.
Adolescence Identity /Risk
Teens are out in the world,
forming a cohesive identity and
attempting to assess the dangers
involved in the risk taking
impulses that come with this age.
Most adolescents with
incarcerated parents have
typically experienced multiple
separations from the incarcerated
parent. They have lived through
previous parental imprisonments
and often a lifestyle that included
addictions, the chaos of financial
instability, caregiver stress, failing
schools and communities lacking
in resources. They are often
expected to assume adult roles,
are left for long periods without
supervision and suffer from
ambivalence about their
All at once, teens can fear they
will turn out like their
incarcerated parent; attempt to
emulate them; and fiercely reject
them. They also have diminishing
hope that their parents will return
Typical patterns of behavior in
response to these crises are:
rejecting adult limits and
helplessness, hopelessness and
depression, drug and alcohol use,
abuse and addictions and sexual
A version of this developmental
outline is available for caregivers.
See CPL 201, Caring for Children
Temperament and Coping
While the developmental norms
will guide adults in understanding
children’s reactions to parental
incarceration, it is also useful to
be reminded of the unique aspects
of each child. Children in similar
situations with parents facing
similar charges may react in
widely different ways to their
parents’ arrest and incarceration.
Children within the same family
even react quite differently. For
decades, theorists have looked at
9 temperament characteristics as
a way of explaining the widely
varying behaviors exhibited by
different children at the same
stages of development in the
same and differing home
Nine temperament qualities
described here focus on infants
and toddlers. Many children
maintain these characteristics
into adulthood. Using these nine
clinicians can help caregivers to
understand the child’s innate
reaction patterns and unique
strengths and weaknesses as well
as to see how their own
temperament styles affect their
interactions with the children.
These temperament qualities
combine then, with the child’s
experiences, relationships and
environmental supports and
stressors to form coping styles
and patterns for children and for
families. This notion of
temperament is also a way of
conceptualizing, not only how a
child may behave in the wake of
parental incarceration, but also
how adults react to them.
1. Activity level. Some babies
are active. They kick a lot in
the uterus before they are
born, they move around in
their bassinets, and as
toddlers, they always run.
Other babies are much less
2. Rhythmicity. Some babies
have regular cycles of
activity. They eat, sleep, and
defecate on schedule almost
from birth. Other babies are
much less predictable.
3. Approach-withdrawal. Some
babies delight in everything
new; others withdraw from
every new situation. The first
bath makes some babies laugh
and others cry; the first
spoonful of cereal is gobbled
up by one baby; and spit out
by the next.
4. Adaptability. Some babies
adjust quickly to change;
others are unhappy at every
disruption of their normal
5. Intensity of reaction. Some
babies chortle when they laugh
and howl when they cry.
Others are much calmer,
responding with a smile or a
6. Threshold or responsiveness.
Some babies seem to sense
every sight, sound and touch.
For instance, they waken at a
slight noise, or turn away from
a distant light. Others seem
unaware even of bright lights,
loud street noises, or wet
7. Quality of mood. Some
babies seem constantly happy,
smiling at almost everything.
Others seem chronically
unhappy; they are ready to
complain at any moment.
8. Distractibility. All babies fuss
when they are hungry; but
some will stop fussing if
someone gives them a pacifier
or sings them a song, while
others keep complaining until
they are fed. Similarly, when
babies spot an attractive but
dangerous object and reach for
it, some of them can be
distracted by another, safer
object while others are more
9. Attention span. Some babies
play happily with one toy for a
long time. Others quickly drop
one activity for another.
(From: Chess & Thomas, 1977)
characteristics do not, in and of
themselves, create behavior
problems or interfere with the
child’s adjustment to parental
incarceration. Rather it is the fit
(or lack of fit) between the child’s
temperament and the coping style
and expectations of the adults that
can cause distress for everyone.
Another aspect of temperament
that can interfere with a child’s
coping is the degree to which a
parent or caregiver identifies the
temperament quality as similar or
identical to themselves or the
child’s other parent. This can, of
course, endear a child when those
qualities are loved and
appreciated in oneself or another.
More often, however, the
presence of some temperament
characteristics alienate the child
when those qualities are repulsive
or frustrating in ones self or
others. For children with parents
who have caused distress in the
family, their likeness to the
incarcerated parent can pose
obstacles to attachment and cause
the child to become the target for
Understanding the role of
temperament and the adults
response to it (positive and
negative) can help caregivers to
see that things like intensity of the
child’s reactions, the
unpredictable moods, the rigidity
with everyday functioning, or
hypersensitivity to noise or
touching may be part of the
child’s personality rather than
caused by the family
circumstances or bad parenting.
Understanding a child’s
temperament may also help
caregivers to predict the child’s
reactions to new situations, to
structure for long trips to visit a
parent in prison or to be patient
with the length of time a child
takes to adjust to change.1
Some children will be easy to
read. Their behaviors will show
clinicians and caregivers that
they are reacting to the stress of
parental incarceration. Others
will not be so obvious.
It is important to be aware that
those children who seem to be
coping well with a parent’s arrest
or incarceration may be silently
suffering intense emotions.
A child whose behavior seems
“normal” may need just as much
support as a child who is more
obviously depressed or anxious.
Family Dynamics and
How children cope with distress
also depends on the capacity of
the adults who care for them to
protect and nurture them.
Most studies show that children
who exhibit the most difficult
behavior in the aftermath of
parental incarceration have been
subjected or exposed to multiple
crises and stresses in the home.
Drug and alcohol abuse, child
maltreatment, domestic violence,
foster care or multiple parental
arrests may be a part of the