Supporting Families and Children of Incarcerated Fathers

Work With Dads

Supporting Families and Children of Incarcerated Fathers

“When a child’s parent goes to prison, with rare exception, the child mourns. They may mourn the loss of the parent, the games they played with them, the meals they ate together or the stories that were read. Or, they may mourn the loss of the hope of the fantasy of what their parent might have been …They need adults who will listen to them and who will truly understand the power of their feelings and honor the overall significance of the parent-child relationship in spite of the parents’ crime.”[44]

As noted earlier, children of incarcerated fathers tend to suffer from stress, trauma, and stigmatization; they may exhibit a broad variety of behavioral, emotional, and other problems;[45] and other family members are also subject to emotional, financial, and physical stress.[46] This can apply whether fathers had been living in the same household as their children or not. Children’s feelings of loss and hopelessness can decrease their coping skills and increase or perpetuate the impact of trauma and stress.

Cumulative Stress of Parents’ Criminal Justice System Involvement for Children[47]

Stage of Criminal Justice Involvement

Feelings and Stress Experienced by Children


Fear, Confusion, Panic


Anxiety, Frustration


Hopelessness, Helplessness

Initial Incarceration

Abandonment, Stigma, Loyalty Conflict, Worry

Incarceration Stage Two

Resentment, Balance, Idealization


Fear, Anxiety, Anticipation


Celebration, Ambivalence, Chaos


One way to counteract these impacts is to provide access to supportive and caring services in the community. Children need adults who will listen and help them to communicate about these feelings, but the adults who have been closest to the situation often need help themselves before they are able to provide that support. Helping caregivers find resources, supports, or coping strategies can increase their ability to parent effectively; bolster the presence of key protective factors in the family; enhance the sense of nurturing and attachment between parent and child; and have a positive impact on children’s social and emotional competence. Complementing caregiver services with mentoring and support for children can further enhance the health and well-being of children and families.

Fatherhood programs may not be able to provide supportive services directly for children and families of incarcerated parents, but they can look for opportunities to connect with existing community services. They can also reach out to key members of a child’s community (e.g., teachers, school counselors, clergy, health care providers, child welfare personnel) to ensure that these individuals are aware of and fully understand the needs of children of incarcerated parents.

The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (formerly the Family and Corrections Network) maintains a Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated and has a range of other resources relevant for work with the families of incarcerated fathers.

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