On any given day, millions of U.S. children have at least one parent in jail or in prison. As the number of children facing this situation has increased substantially over the past several decades, interest has intensified regarding the impact of this experience on child adjustment. Although substantial research has focused on the link between parental incarceration and child externalizing behaviors, comparatively little research has examined the impact of parental incarceration on child internalizing problems across time. This leaves a critical gap in understanding child outcomes as a whole. To address this gap, the effects of parental incarceration on developmental trajectories of internalizing problems were examined while controlling for key individual, parental and family influences.
655 students and their families were recruited from 12 elementary schools located in high-risk neighborhoods in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Data reported in this study were from assessments given when the youth were 10 - 16 years old. Longitudinal time points of internalizing problems observed at four time points were fit using growth mixture modeling (GMM). As a second step, a series of planned comparisons of relevant adolescent and adult characteristics between the trajectories were conducted. Finally, using the identified trajectory groups, unadjusted and adjusted multinomial logistic regression models were fit. The models included all predictors of interest on the categorical outcome of the specific internalizing problem trajectory using the low risk, normative individuals as the reference group.
Four trajectory classes were identified: Low-Stable, Pre-Adolescent Limited, Moderate-Increasing, and High-Decreasing. Over half of the children who had experienced parental incarceration were best represented by the low risk trajectory (i.e., Low-Stable). However, children with incarcerated parents were underrepresented in this trajectory and overrepresented in two of the three problematic trajectories. The trajectory classes differed significantly on many of the pre-adolescent measures as well as on adolescent delinquency, substance use, suicide ideation and suicide attempt. The Pre-Adolescent Limited, Moderate-Increasing, and High-Decreasing showed significantly higher levels of early risk factors and problematic outcomes than the Low-Stable trajectory group. However, when controlling for other family risks, parental incarceration was not a significant risk factor for any of the trajectories in the development of internalizing problems.
Conclusions and Implications:
Findings from our study highlight some of the risk factors that increase the likelihood that children of incarcerated parents will develop internalizing problems over adolescence. Although we found that parental incarceration was not a unique predictor of the problematic internalizing trajectories, many of the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents were key predictors of those trajectories. Therefore, those who are developing preventive and treatment strategies for children of incarcerated parents need to consider how to address these underlying risks that might be present in families. Identifying and understanding different influences on growth trajectories can inform and bring critical insight to the development of clinically and personally relevant interventions for children of incarcerated parents.