Supporting Children Experiencing Parental Incarceration

The effect of parental incarceration on children can take many different forms. Because incarceration leads to the absence of that family member, children often experience grief from missing that person.

How does incarceration affect children?

Although their incarcerated parent may be physically safe, children are likely to experience this event as a loss since they are left without the presence of an important figure in their lives. This can cause a child to feel confusion and concern for the well-being of the parent, as well as a deep sense of shame related to the criminal conduct.

Incarceration can significantly alter a family structure and a child’s expectations for the future. For children who live with another relative, the absence of a parent can result in greater financial burdens on the caregiver and raises the risk of financial lawsuits that can place more stress on a family. For children of incarcerated parents, the grieving process can manifest in a number of forms across different stages of development.

How can you help?

Parental incarceration can result in a child feeling ashamed to talk about this aspect of their family. To help navigate these challenges, Rainbows’ programs emphasize facilitator role modeling and instilling an atmosphere of mutual respect in the way they interact with children and encouraging respectful behaviors, such as active listening, between other participants. These interactions can help children feel less alone in these experiences and overcome the shame they may feel when talking about their family life with friends.

Through firsthand observation, facilitators can recognize an individual child’s challenges and emotions and encourage them to develop positive, healthy responses. As mentors, they aim to help children think about the grieving process, understand reasons for their feelings and behaviors and adopt appropriate responses rather than destructive ones.

How does Rainbows provide support?

Rainbows for All Children has a specially designed curriculum for pre-school, K–8 and high school-aged youth experiencing parental incarceration.

Our programs empower children in the following ways:
• Develop and strengthen problem-solving skills
• Prevent destructive behaviors such as involvement with gangs, alcohol and substance abuse
• Improve school attendance and academic performance
• Alleviate depression and anxiety
• Enhance communications between children and their families and peers.

With trained facilitators and uniquely designed programs, Rainbows has become one of the largest international organizations providing children support as they grieve and grow after loss.

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We provide resources for all forms of grief.


Of all the children in America, around 15% will experience the death of a family member or sibling. Even though death is ultimately a fact of life, it can be hard for anyone to experience this kind of loss, let alone a child.


There are about 1.25 million divorces per year in the United States. Of all U.S. children, 50% will witness the breakup of their parents’ marriage, and almost 50% of those children will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.


One in 28 children will experience the incarceration of a parent before the age of 18. Approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are younger than 10 years old.


When a parent, caregiver or sibling is deported, or even when there is the threat of deportation, the whole family suffers.

Military Deployment

Parental deployment is a form of loss that 3% of American children experience. This can be a very difficult adjustment for children, who may not be able to see or speak to that parent regularly, and who also may experience a great deal of stress when worried about his or her parent or guardian’s safety.

Significant Illness

A child coping with the significant illness of a parent, caregiver or sibling can face many challenges.”

Community Crisis

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Rainbows’ programs help children grieving the loss
of a parent or guardian due to death, divorce/separation,
deployment, deportation, incarceration or trauma.