Confining Mastery: Understanding the Influence of Parental Incarceration on Mastery in Young Adulthood

Unique Shaw-Smith, Bowling Green State University


The incarceration of parents has become a concern for the social, behavioral, and psychological development of children across the United States. Less attention has been given to understanding its effect on social psychological resources, namely mastery, that enable older children to combat environmental stressors. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), this study employs three approaches to examine the relationship between parental incarceration and mastery in young adulthood. First, upon establishing parental incarceration's influence on mastery, I examine whether timing, frequency, and duration of the incarceration influences the magnitude of this association. Second, I examine life course mechanisms (i.e., parent-child interactions, psychological resources, achieved characteristics, and antisocial behaviors and social exclusion) through which parental incarceration influences respondent's mastery. And lastly, I examine how race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), and gender moderate the relationship between parental incarceration mastery in young adulthood. Findings show distinct patterns of sensitivity to timing, frequency, and duration of parental incarceration, suggesting that the effect of parental incarceration is multifaceted. These patterns show that the effect of earlier incarcerations are more robust than later incarcerations, that any number of incarcerations are detrimental for respondents, and that only the shortest and longest durations of incarceration pose a threat to respondents' levels of mastery in young adulthood. I also find a number of mechanisms through which timing of parental incarceration is associated with mastery in young adulthood, with respondents' antisocial behavior and social exclusion being the strongest mediator. Lastly, I find significant differences by race and ethnicity, but not by SES or gender of respondent and parent. Racial and ethnic differences show that parental incarceration is most detrimental to Hispanics, followed by Whites, but there is no significant effect on mastery levels for Blacks, which prompts a discussion of life course normativeness. Furthermore, the lack of significant gender differences by parent provides evidence against mothers' incarceration being worse than fathers'. Overall, I conclude that having a parent incarcerated is generally harmful to an individual's level of mastery, especially for younger, non-Black respondents who participate in their own antisocial activities.