I draw on general strain theory, a framework often used to understand adolescent behavior, and augment it with aspects of the stress process perspective to examine the time-varying consequences of paternal incarceration for adolescent behavior.
I use six waves of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a cohort of children born around the turn of the twenty-first century, and inverse probability of treatment weighting models to estimate the time-varying relationship between paternal incarceration and adolescent behavior problems and the mechanisms underlying this relationship.
Results document three main findings. First, adolescents exposed to paternal incarceration at any point in the life course have more behavior problems than their counterparts not exposed to paternal incarceration. Second, exposure to paternal incarceration during early childhood, but not during middle childhood or early adolescence, is positively associated with behavior problems. Third, this relationship is partially explained by family adversities stemming from paternal incarceration.
This research builds on our criminological understanding of how strains, such as paternal incarceration, can facilitate inequalities in adolescent behavior by considering dynamic selection into paternal incarceration, the time-varying repercussions of paternal incarceration, and the mechanisms linking paternal incarceration to adolescent behavior. Early life course paternal incarceration facilitates chains of adversity that accumulate throughout early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence.
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Propensity score matching is a similar (and commonly used) way of considering observed pre-existing differences between treatment and control groups. However, inverse probability of treatment weighting is advantageous because (1) Stata programs can compute proper standard errors and (2) this approach, unlike propensity score matching, does not have the potential to increase imbalance and bias (King and Nielsen 2016). However, supplemental analyses that instead match on the propensity score (nearest neighbor matching and kernel matching) produce consistent results.
The difference in outcomes also adjusts for two characteristics at the 15-year survey: primary caregiver type (mother, father, other) and adolescent age.
These analyses examine mechanisms measured at the 9-year survey, to ensure they are measured both after the treatment and prior to adolescent outcomes, but results are substantively similar if instead measuring the mechanisms at the 5-year survey; at the 15-year survey; or at the 5-, 9-, and 15-year surveys.
The measures of paternal incarceration timing necessarily correspond to the timing of the survey waves, but this timing roughly corresponds to early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence and how timing of paternal incarceration has been operationalized in previous research (e.g., Swisher and Shaw-Smith 2015).
Additional analyses considered the time-varying consequences of paternal incarceration between the 1- and 3-year surveys and paternal incarceration between the 3- and 5-year surveys, as the data allow for this examination. Adjusted estimates show that paternal incarceration between the 1- and 3-year surveys is significantly associated with more externalizing problems (b = 0.116), attention problems (b = 0.151), and delinquency (b = 0.129) in adolescence. Adjusted estimates, those that exclude children exposed to paternal incarceration between the 1- and 3-year surveys, also show that paternal incarceration between the 3- and 5-year surveys is significantly associated with more externalizing problems (b = 0.203) and attention problems (b = 0.129) in adolescence.
Other supplemental analyses considered race/ethnic and gender heterogeneity in the time-varying consequences of paternal incarceration for adolescent behavior. Findings show that paternal incarceration in early childhood, middle childhood, and early adolescence is similarly associated with adolescent behavior for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics and for girls and boys.
I separately considered the three individual measures of the parental relationship in supplemental analyses. Changes in parental separation explains between 9 and 20% (depending on the outcome) of the association between paternal incarceration in early childhood and adolescent behavior, changes in mother-reported relationship quality explains between 12 and 22%, and changes in father-reported relationship quality explains between 7 and 14%.
Importantly, the comparison group changes over time. The estimates of early childhood paternal incarceration compare children who experience paternal incarceration between ages 1 and 5 to children who do not experience paternal incarceration during this time period. The subsequent analyses compare (1) children who experience paternal incarceration between ages 5 and 9 to children who do not experience paternal incarceration between ages 1 and 9 and (2) children who experience paternal incarceration between ages 9 and 15 to children who do not experience paternal incarceration between ages 1 and 15. Those who first experience paternal incarceration at later points in the life course may be a more select group than those who experience paternal incarceration in early childhood (which, coincidentally, bolsters the findings about the consequences of early childhood paternal incarceration).
It may also be that paternal incarceration occurring in middle childhood or adolescence is stress-relieving for some families, with offsetting positive and negative consequences of paternal incarceration, a possibility to explore in future research.
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This paper benefited from helpful comments from Jessica Hardie and Anita Zuberi. This research was supported by a fellowship from the National Academy of Education (NAEd)/Spencer Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, and the William T. Grant Foundation. Funding for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was provided by the NICHD through Grants R01HD36916, R01HD39135, and R01HD40421, as well as a consortium of private foundations (see http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/funders.asp for the complete list).
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Turney, K. Chains of Adversity: The Time-Varying Consequences of Paternal Incarceration for Adolescent Behavior. J Quant Criminol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-020-09485-3
- General strain theory
- Paternal incarceration
- Stress process perspective