University of Missouri Extension

GH6615, New April 2016

Parenting from Prison: A Co-Parenting Guide for Divorced and Separated Parents

David Schramm
State Specialist, Human Development and Family Science
Christina Pucci
Graduate Student, Human Development and Family Science

Divorce is a stressful process for families. One parent being incarcerated further complicates several aspects of the family relationship, such as communication, custody arrangements, child support and relationship maintenance. Although the incarcerated parent is physically separated from their children, they can still be involved in making decisions on issues concerning their children. Children need both parents in their lives, especially during a divorce, so parents must work together to maintain communication and contact with their children. You could mail a copy of this guide to the incarcerated parent so both parents can benefit from this information.

Effects of divorce


Focus on Kids
This guide is part of a series aimed at helping families in which parents are separated or divorcing and who share parenting responsibilities for children. We will use the terms divorce and separation interchangeably to describe parents who are separated from each other.

Divorce is a stressful time for children, custodial parents and incarcerated parents. Divorce affects each family member differently and depends on how long a parent has been in prison, why they are in prison and the state of their relationships with their children and the children's primary caregiver.



Children of divorce with an incarcerated parent often have difficulty adjusting to these family circumstances. They are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems at school and at home, but children of different ages often have different reactions to their parents' divorce and incarceration.

Infants might be fussier than usual depending on how much contact they had with their absent parent before incarceration. Many young children — toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children — feel sad, confused, guilty, abandoned and worried about their relationship with their absent parent. They might have separation anxiety about their incarcerated parent and blame themselves for their parents' absence, which can result in problem behaviors such as bed-wetting, nightmares, sleeping problems, loss of appetite and tantrums. Children might be ostracized or teased by their peers about their parent's incarceration, which can lead to social and emotional withdrawal.

Preteens and teenagers might be similarly ostracized or discriminated against by their peers because of a parent's incarceration. To avoid rejection or embarrassment, children of this age might distance themselves from their incarcerated parent. They might also fear ending up in prison like their incarcerated parent.

Witnessing conflict between parents can lead to problem behavior and mental issues in children of all ages. In extreme cases, such as when children witness their parent's arrest, they might experience post-traumatic stress disorder. In such cases, the custodial parent should consider therapy or counseling for their children. The incarcerated parent can help by maintaining contact with their children and reassuring them that they still love and care about them.

Children respond in different ways depending on their age, so parents need to be aware of how they can help their children cope:


Caregivers for children of an incarcerated parent face many challenges in dealing with the criminal justice system and raising children without the other parent. This is often the custodial parent for children of divorce. On the one hand, custodial parents might be more comfortable being involved in the children's daily lives. On the other hand, they might feel overwhelmed and bitter about being left to care for the children alone. They invest time and energy in dealing with the responsibilities that come with divorce, children and incarceration. Shouldering responsibilities alone often leads to further stress and exhaustion.

Furthermore, custodial parents should see to their personal needs and might find it helpful to seek out support groups, counseling and close adult family members and friends to talk to about their concerns. Some effective coping mechanisms include breathing exercises or surrounding oneself with humorous things or people. Research shows that parents with primary custody of their children take better care of them when they are physically and mentally healthy. Therefore, primary caregivers should get enough sleep, maintain a balanced diet and get plenty of exercise.

Incarcerated parents

Incarcerated parents often feel stressed about being separated from their children without the right to see them when and where they want. Parents in prison might have trouble coming to terms with the effects of their incarceration on their children. For example, they might feel they have failed their children or be concerned about whether they have been a good parent while in prison. On top of this, the incarcerated parent is going through a divorce, which compounds feelings of guilt, stress, frustration and helplessness.

Some prisons have parenting education programs or classes that teach parenting skills. When reunited with their children after being released from prison, parents might want to seek out support groups or counseling services to deal with divorce and incarceration.

Co-parental communication

Communication is often difficult for co-parents when one of them is incarcerated. Parents must agree on a communication method that works for both of them. Use these tips to help divorced parents communicate between the prison and household:

How to explain prisons to children

Children need honest answers from their parents, but explained in a way they can understand. False stories about the other parent's whereabouts can be harmful in the long run. For example, telling the children their other parent is out of town might lead to the child asking when their parent is coming back and why that parent does not want to see them. Custodial parents should tell their children the truth to build trust. Here are some suggestions for parents when answering their children's questions:

Children might feel uncertain about their incarcerated parent's involvement in their life, so parents should discuss answers to these questions. When parents give their children a unified message, children will be less confused with the situation. Divorced parents might also want to be prepared for these questions their children might ask:


Children might not be allowed to visit their incarcerated parent because of the prison system's rules. If visits are allowed, children might initially think the visit is scary or difficult. However, visiting an incarcerated parent is extremely important for children. They usually miss the incarcerated parent, even if it is not always obvious to the caregiver. Visits can reassure them of their parent's safety and help maintain or build strong parent-child relationships.

Explain to children beforehand what visits to the incarcerated parent will be like to ease feelings of stress, worry and anxiety. However, parents should base how much they tell their children on their child's age. Let them know if the visit will take place in-person, across a glass window or on a television screen. Let them know whether they can hug the incarcerated parent and remind them that their parent cannot come home with them. Mention that the parent might be wearing a uniform as part of the prison's rules. Finally, let the child know what they will be able to do during the visit, such as play games, sit at a table and so on.

Tips for families with an incarcerated parent

Effective co-parenting can be a difficult process following separation or divorce. When one parent is incarcerated, more complex issues arise that can damage children's relationships with their parents.

Children are better off when both parents maintain relationships with them through regular contact and involvement. Despite many prisons' strict visitation policies, incarcerated parents should understand that their co-parenting relationship with the custodial parent will probably affect how much contact they have with their children. These useful tips can help incarcerated parents effectively co-parent and maintain a relationship with their children:

Incarcerated parents and children might go long periods of time without seeing one another. This is especially true if the incarcerated parent is far away. Parenting at a distance is difficult under the best of circumstances and complicated by incarceration. These creative and fun activities can help incarcerated parents with long-distance parenting:

Co-parenting tips for custodial parents

Many children with an incarcerated parent wish to see their parent more often than is possible. Incarcerated parents should maintain a positive relationship with the custodial parent to make it easier for children to maintain a relationship with the incarcerated parent.

Custodial parents can support the relationship between incarcerated parent and child to help their children cope with the divorce and incarceration. The custodial parent should encourage the incarcerated parent to stay involved in their children's lives by encouraging communication between them. Involve the other parent in making some decisions about the children. This might help the incarcerated parent feel more included and more a part of their children's lives. Additionally, primary caregivers should encourage children to maintain contact with their other parent. In addition to visiting the incarcerated parent, children can send letters, holiday cards and photos.

On the other hand, incarcerated parents might choose to be uninvolved in their children's lives because they worry about the physical and emotional well-being of their children visiting the prison. Strict prison visitation policies could also prevent incarcerated parents from seeing their children. Even so, primary caregivers should encourage incarcerated parents to stay involved in their children's lives. Parents should resolve any conflict to maintain their co-parenting relationship for the children.

There are several ways custodial parents can reassure their children while the other parent is incarcerated:

Reuniting with children and re-entering society

An incarcerated parent's re-entry into society and the life of their child affects the whole family. Research shows reunification is an important time for the relationship between an incarcerated parent and their children. As the formerly incarcerated parent readjusts to a more involved role, both parents might want to reconsider custody arrangements but continue their co-parenting relationship by working together and communicating.

Reunification and re-entry can be a difficult and challenging process. There might be existing conflict between parents or with children, or custodial parents might refuse to give up custody. To ease the transition, parents might want to plan out the reintegration into the child's life before the incarcerated parent is released from prison. Here are some tips for divorced parents with an incarcerated parent facing reunification:

Many incarcerated parents feel that this is an opportunity for a fresh start with their children. Although incarcerated parents might not get custody of their children, they might realize that a gradual transition can strengthen their relationship rather than rushing back into their children's lives.


Divorced or separated parents dealing with incarceration should try to do what is best for their children. Successful co-parenting requires both parents to be kind, patient and cooperative with each other. Communication and contact are essential for the long-term adjustment of parents and children. Although these tend to be difficult circumstances, parents should try to work together to meet their children's needs.

Additional information


Special thanks to Mary Engram for reviewing this guide.
GH6615 Parenting from Prison: A Co-Parenting Guide for Divorced and Separated Parents | University of Missouri Extension

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