Programs for Children with Incarcerated Parents

Of the 74 million children living in the United States, 65 million (88 percent) will experience a traumatic form of loss related to at least one parent. These adverse events include the death of a parent, divorce or marriage separation, parental deployment or parental incarceration. One in 28 children will have a parent become incarcerated before his or her 18th birthday. Approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are younger than 10 years old.


Sheila: “One day, I sat down and counted how much time I have spent living with my real mom. And guess what–in 11 years, I have been living with other foster moms longer. I mean, how long will it take for mom to ‘get better’ so I can finally move home, for good, for the last time?”

Approximately 15 to 20 percent of children in the child welfare system have a parent who is incarcerated. For children who live with another relative, the absence of a parent can result in greater financial burdens on the caregiver. Parental incarceration raises the risk of financial lawsuits that can place more stress on a family.

Experiences of Children with Incarcerated Parents

The effect of parental incarceration on children can take many different forms, though children often respond with grief, as this can mean the loss of a loved one. For children of incarcerated parents, as with other forms of loss, the process of grieving can manifest is a number forms across different stages of development.

Ricardo:  “My dad and sister and me had to move here because we can visit mom, who is in jail for a big mistake she made. That’s all I know. I miss my mom, but I don’t want to leave my school and friends.”


Although the parent or guardian may be physically safe, children are likely to experience parental incarceration 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. As with other forms of loss, incarceration can significantly alter a family structure and a child’s expectations for the future.


As a parent, teacher or other adult who cares about a child, you may face the challenge of helping a child process loss. Grief can manifest in many different ways[TS2]  and may not be apparent even to those who are close to the child. As a result, the most caring adults might fail to notice when a child is struggling.


Helping Children Cope with Loss

Rainbows for All Children provides programs for children with incarcerated parents and other experiences of loss. Rainbows’ facilitators are specifically trained to support children of all different age groups. Facilitators act as companions to share experiences and help children make sense of loss and as compassionate role models for peer groups. By validating children’s emotions and encouraging peer relationships based on respect, facilitators help children to reconcile these adverse circumstances and to look forward to a fulfilling future.

Rainbows’ facilitators have the unique advantage of observing children’s coping strategies and reactions firsthand during the group meetings. This allows facilitators to 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 his or her feelings and behaviors and adopt appropriate responses rather than destructive ones.

Parental incarceration often means absence of a role model and can result in a child feeling ashamed to talk about this aspect of his or her 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.

These programs enable children to learn 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, anxiety, enhance communications between children and their families and peers. By encouraging kids to engage with others who have had similar experiences, Rainbows helps children remember that they are not alone in their circumstances and encourages them to reach out to peers for support.

Why Rainbows for All Children?

Rainbows for All Children is uniquely equipped to help children through different emotions and stages of development. Rainbows has specially designed curriculum for pre-school, K through 8 and high school aged kids. Since its inception, Rainbows has provided peer support groups to more than three million kids from schools, faith-based organizations and community centers in the United States and 16 countries worldwide. With its trained facilitators and uniquely designed programs, Rainbows has become part of the largest international organization to help children grieve and grow in response to loss, click here to find a Rainbows group in your area.