Situating the experience of maternal incarceration: Childhood and young adult context

Xing Zhang, Allison Dwyer Emory

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Purpose – We descriptively examined measures of family structure, socioeconomic disadvantage, and exposure to crime, violence, and substance use in young adulthood and childhood for those who experienced maternal incarceration as children. Methodology/Approach – We used data from waves I and IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. We compared these individuals to two groups: those who did not experience maternal incarceration and those who experienced paternal incarceration. We generated weighted means and conducted F-tests using bivariate regressions to determine where these groups significantly differed. Findings – We found that individuals whose mothers were incarcerated during their childhoods experienced greater hardships in both childhood and young adulthood than those whose mothers were not incarcerated. Individuals who experienced maternal incarceration reported similar levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and exposure to crime and violence as those who experienced paternal incarceration. One notable exception was family structure, where maternal incarceration was associated with significantly fewer respondents reporting living with their mother or either biological parent. Social Implications – With the exception of family structure, the childhood and transition to adulthood were comparable for individuals experiencing any form of parental incarceration. These children were significantly more disadvantaged and exposed to more risk factors than those whose parents were never incarcerated. Additional support and resources are necessary for families who have incarcerated parents, with special outreach made to families without a biological mother in the household. Originality/Value of Paper – There has been no overarching, descriptive study comparing child and young adult outcomes of those with an incarcerated mother using a nationally representative, longitudinal dataset in the United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-254
Number of pages36
JournalContemporary Perspectives in Family Research
StatePublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Childhood
  • Maternal incarceration
  • Socioeconomic disadvantage

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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