Mothers’ Lived Experiences with an Incarcerated Son: A Research Brief


Impacts of incarceration on the family system

With an estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated, the United States (U.S.) continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the world (Beckett et al., 2018). Stress, trauma, and stigma are common negative effects of incarceration on the well-being of the individual and their loved ones (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). For an already vulnerable group, the effects of incarceration can have devastating effects on the entire family system (Beckett et al., 2018; Lee et al., 2015; Wakefield et al., 2016).

Research on the detrimental effects of parental incarceration, particularly on the mental health of those left behind, is extensive (Davis & Shlafer, 2017; Tadros & Durante, 2022; Tadros, Fanning et al., 2021). Articles have described the parent-child dynamic when the adolescent is detained or when the parent is incarcerated (Monahan et al., 2011; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010). The experiences of parents whose adult children are in prison, however, have not been adequately examined. Our goal was to examine relationships that have received less attention, specifically, mothers and sons.

Incarcerated adult child-parent relationships

How parents are affected when their adult children are imprisoned, especially how mother-son relationships are affected by imprisonment, has not been well studied. However, some research has been done to address aspects of this issue. Studies have focused on understanding the perspective of mothers of imprisoned sons and their relationships with their sons (Shishido & Latzman, 2017; Sirois, 2020). Additional research has focused on understanding common mother-child relationships in general (Fingerman et al., 2020; Iscanoglu & Ucanok, 2022). Other studies have focused specifically on delinquency beginning in adolescence (Keijsers et al. 2011). Several studies have also been conducted looking at the impact on families when members of a family unit are imprisoned (Burgess-Proctor et al., 2016).

Research has been conducted to help mothers better understand child confinement, mother-child relationships in general, juvenile delinquency, and the impact of confinement on families as a whole. While these studies have had a significant impact on what is known about the subject, they do not fully address what this study seeks to cover: the lived experiences of parents of incarcerated adults. The overall objective of this study is to comprehend and identify the needs of non-incarcerated parents to help mental health practitioners and larger systems design programming and assistance for these individuals. The research question is: What is the lived experience of mothers with an incarcerated adult son?


Analytic strategy: phenomenology. To better comprehend the shared lived experiences of these women, phenomenology was applied to this study (Creswell & Poth, 2018). The ideal sample size for this qualitative phenomenology investigation is six to eight people (Creswell & Poth, 2018). We interviewed eight participants to hear their voices, particularly those who are underrepresented, such as mothers of adult sons who are in prison. A small sample size is advised to be able to acquire an in-depth knowledge (Creswell & Poth, 2018).

Participants and procedures

Consisting of 16.5k members, a Facebook group titled “Incarcerated Loved Ones” was utilized to recruit participants for this study. The overall participants were eight mothers with incarcerated sons. Seven (87.5%) of the eight participants identified as White or Caucasian, and one (12.5%) as Hispanic. Two (25%) of the participants had never attended individual, couple, or family counseling, while six (75%) had participated at some point.

Participants were asked about their availability for interviews and were screened for inclusion criteria. Participants were also informed that interviews would take place over the phone and be recorded. All information collected during the recording was confidential and de-identified. After transcription, the recordings were deleted to further protect participants. During the interviews, researchers explained the purpose of the study, reminded participants that participation is voluntary, and asked seven interview questions. The questions allowed participants to state as much or as little information as they felt comfortable with. Each interview was transcribed, coded, and themes were created. The research team consisted of two coders and one auditor. Three researchers coded and re-coded until an agreement was reached.


Five themes emerged in this study. They were systemic issues, barriers and challenges for families, emotional impact, mental health services, and advocacy and support.

Systemic issues

Several of the mothers who were interviewed focused on the difficulties they and their incarcerated sons faced navigating the criminal justice system. The codes that emerged under this theme were lack of resources, sentencing discrepancies, and inconsistencies. Lack of resources specifically talked about resources needed within the criminal justice system and the fact that their son wasn’t receiving what they needed. Of the participants in this study, two referred to issues regarding their sons’ prison sentences. They also mentioned speaking to other individuals dealing with similar issues who had comparable stories to share. During the entire process of their sons’ incarceration, the participants mentioned feeling confused by the inconsistencies within the criminal system. For example, “They are so inconsistent. I mean, from the charges to the arrest, to the arraignment to the bail to the refunding of my money…”

Barriers and challenges for families

Though many challenges were mentioned, due to the frequency of these codes, the following will be discussed: lack of support, financial health concerns, and COVID. Participants discussed the lack of support they felt when their sons were incarcerated. They mentioned losing support from friends and family overall. One of the participants stated, “You kind of lose about 50% of them right off the bat… I lost my co-worker, I lost my best friend.” Half of the participants specifically talked about the financial challenges they faced. This includes things like bail money, phone calls and communication, and commissary. Of the eight participants, three also discussed health concerns. They mentioned concerns regarding lack of medical attention and failure to receive required medications. Another major challenge was COVID. Due to when the interviews took place, the mothers were still dealing with how COVID affected their visits and communication with their sons.

Emotional impact

Though the mothers who were interviewed described a great deal of emotions, there were two main codes that emerged in this section. Those codes were sad and worried. In terms of feeling sad, one participant mentioned, “It makes me sad because he’s wasting his life away.” Another participant stated feeling “completely heartbroken.” Feeling worried was also discussed by the participants. A participant in particular mentioned, “You wonder if they’re gonna make it home. And then you wonder if you’re going to live to see them come home.” Participants seemed to be worried about their son’s life in prison, but also how they would transition after they were released.

Mental health concerns

Concerns regarding mental health were a theme that came up throughout the interviews. The mental health of the prisoners, as well as their family members, was mentioned. Due to their frequency, the codes of lack of treatment, needing therapy, and efficacy will be discussed. Three participants specifically talked about the lack of mental health treatment. One participant discussed her son being ignored and only given medication without seeing a mental health professional. The code of needing therapy was also mentioned. A participant shared, “And um I think competent, caring social workers, psychologists, whatever in the facilities would be amazing for many, many people.” Efficacy was mentioned by a majority of the participants as well in terms of the benefits or disadvantages of seeking mental health services for themselves. While there were a couple of participants who did not see the value in mental health services, most of the participants did. One participant mentioned, “I have a counselor, or did have a counselor…And it made a world of difference for me.” 

Advocacy and support

Advocacy and support were strong themes that came up with several of the participants. Of the many times it was mentioned, three codes emerged: be the voice, familial relationships, and online support. A few of the participants specifically talked about being the voice for their incarcerated sons. One mentioned, “I’ve got a good core of people that are like-minded. And we’re fighters…” For the code of familial relationships, participants discussed how much familial relationships are impacted, both positively and negatively, because of their son’s incarceration. One participant talked about how she and her husband became closer, while other participants talked about no longer speaking to family members at all due to the incarceration. Several participants mentioned how supportive the members of the group have been.


This study was carried out to learn more about the real-life experiences of mothers of adult sons who are in prison. It is crucial that their voices are heard because incarceration affects the whole family. Five themes emerged: systemic issues, barriers and challenges for families, emotional impact, mental health services, and advocacy and support.

Systemic issues

Many of the participants discussed systemic issues as a challenge they faced including lack of resources, sentencing discrepancies, and overall inconsistencies. Once released, individuals have difficulty finding work, housing, and successfully reintegrating into society, and this burden is often borne by support systems such as family members (King et al., 2005). Attempts have been made to remedy sentencing discrepancies through mandatory minimum requirements, but this often does more harm than good (Nir & Liu, 2021). The regulations imposed by several prisons appear to change daily, making it very difficult to track all the nuances (McKay et al., 2018). Policy implications related to these systemic challenges need to focus specifically on providing support to families of incarcerated individuals.

Overall, families need assistance, including financial and health support.

Barriers and challenges for families

Barriers and challenges were the second theme that emerged in this study and included lack of support, financial, health concerns, and COVID. Detainees and their families face stigma associated with detention (Feingold, 2021). Research shows that incarcerated individuals face more financial challenges during incarceration and upon reintegration (Morgan et al., 2022). Incarcerated individuals deal with both physical and mental health issues, and even more barriers were created due to the COVID-19 pandemic (DeHart et al., 2018; Novisky et al., 2020). Overall, families need assistance, including financial and health support.

Emotional impact

The mothers interviewed for this study referred to the emotional impact they felt due to their sons’ incarceration. Though there were a couple of positive emotions that were mentioned, the prominent emotions were sadness and worry. Parents have great difficulty overcoming their own negative feelings associated with their child’s imprisonment (Benisty et al., 2021). Because of the emotional stress of incarceration, MFTs may be helpful in these situations for both incarcerated individuals and their family members (Tadros et al., 2021).

Mental health services

Several of the participants discussed mental health services in their interviews including lack of treatment, needing therapy, and efficacy. Research has shown that the stress of dealing with one’s children’s mental health issues related to incarceration is unique and directly affects the mental health of parents themselves (Wildeman et al., 2012). Our findings are consistent with various research studies advocating systemic mental health services during incarceration to support family relationships, adjustment, and reintegration into the family system (Datchi et al., 2016; Durante et al., 2022; Garofalo, 2020). Mental health services should be provided both during and after detention and require a systematic change in policy (Tadros, Hutcherson et al., 2021).

Advocacy and support

The mothers interviewed for this study spoke a great deal about advocating for their sons and the support needed to do that successfully. Parents often provide emotional and social support to their children, especially during times of stress and uncertainty (Bradley, 2007). There is a stigma associated with incarceration that affects both the incarcerated individuals and their loved ones (Tadros, Presley et al., 2022). 

Limitations and future directions

There were a few limitations of this study that should be considered including having a brief time limit, only having one interview per participant, and calling the participants over the phone. Convenience sampling was used, which is beneficial in terms of how cost-effective and time-saving it can be, but can result in poor results or difficult-to-accept findings (Oppong, 2013). All of the participants ended up being mothers to incarcerated sons, which limits other parent-child relationships. In addition to the participants all being females, they were also mostly white, so the results do not account for other diverse groups.

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Of the five themes that emerged, each could be more fully explored. This could provide more in-depth information within the parent-child relationship overall. In terms of the participants, more detailed information could be provided including participants’ age, sentence length for their son, where they are incarcerated, charges, etc. Additional research could also include studying populations that this study did not discuss. These could include the father-son dynamic, for example, because of the impact these individuals may face due to societal gender expectations (Umamaheswar & Tadros, 2021). As stated, the participant pool also was not very diverse, so additional research could focus on the experience of more culturally and ethnically diverse participants.

Eman Tadros, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, MBTI certified, an AAMFT Professional member holding the Approved Supervisor designation, and a Family TEAM leader. She is the assistant editor for the journal Child: Care, Health and Development. Her research focuses on incarcerated couples and families. She has published 112 peer-reviewed journal articles and various magazines, blog posts, book chapters, op-eds, and policy briefs.

Sarah Presley, MSW, LSW, is a clinical assessor for Nationwide Children’s Hospital in their Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Program. She has extensive experience within the criminal justice system. Presley has multiple published journal articles and has presented research across the country.

Yenitza Z. Guzman, PhD, LPC, NCC, PEL, is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University. Guzman has over a decade of clinical experience working with youth in Chicago Public Schools and has presented in local, national, and international conferences.

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