Adolescents with incarcerated parents are at higher risk of mental disorders

Adolescent years are not as fun-filled and carefree as one would like to believe. In reality, teens often face several stressful situations during this critical phase of their lives. Added to this if the parents are incarcerated, the extent of challenges faced by the teens go up significantly. Adolescents with one or both parents in prison may encounter obstacles such as an unstable home life, constant relocation, change of schools, separation from siblings and loss of contact with the extended family. Many of them may feel burdened by the stigma associated with their parents’ offenses and imprisonment leading to a sense of isolation.

Results of a study published in the Journal of Adolescence in January 2017 indicate that adolescents with current or formerly incarcerated parents are at a higher risk of mental disorders. Researchers from the University of Minnesota collected data from the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey to investigate over 122,000 children from grades 8, 9 and 11. It was found that incarceration of parents was strongly correlated with higher rates of teen mental disorders such as internalizing behavior, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.

Children whose parents were currently incarcerated had a two-and-a-half to four-time higher likelihood of experiencing such mental disorders; whereas, children of formerly incarcerated parents had nearly twice the likelihood of experiencing them as compared to children without incarcerated parents. Only 30 percent received any treatment for a mental disorder. The researchers also found that strong parent-child relationships minimized the negative outcomes of mental disorders.

Negative psychosocial outcomes among adolescents

Although there is no conclusive data regarding the number of adolescents with incarcerated parents, a 2010 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that parental incarceration impacted over 1.7 million children under 18, which represented 2.3 percent of the 74 million children in the same age group as of midyear 2007. Research by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 2.7 million minor children had an incarcerated parent in 2010, representing 1 out of every 28 children or 3.6 percent of all minor children.

Besides mental health issues, current and former parental incarceration are also significantly associated with the use of alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, tobacco and other addictive substances. The criminality of parents is one of the strongest indicators of antisocial behavior among adolescents. Associated trauma causes emotional and behavioral issues among children and adolescents, including insomnia, depression, problems at school (poor grades, low academic performance), inability to build relationships with peers, and internalizing due to the associated shame. In some cases, the risk becomes significantly higher if the incarcerated parent is the mother.

Caregivers play a key role

Adolescents may have been a witness to or remember the events related to their parent’s offense. Compared to younger kids, teens have higher reasoning power to express themselves with regard to communication with incarcerated parents or feelings about their current caregivers. Keeping in touch with an imprisoned parent may sometimes be difficult due to the correctional facility’s location, high cost of commute or phone calls, and other factors. Moreover, prisons usually enforce strict visitation rules which may leave teens emotionally distraught.

Youngsters are likely to live with their mothers when their fathers are incarcerated but when mothers are incarcerated, many children are entrusted in the care of grandparents or other relatives. In the absence of a parent, caregivers can play a key role in influencing teens’ emotional development. The level of affection and closeness between an adolescent and the caregiver may have a significant impact on the adolescent’s mental health, especially in situations of limited or no contact with the imprisoned parent.

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