Enduring Positivity: Children of Incarcerated Parents Report More Positive Than Negative Emotions When Thinking About Close Others

Dunlea, James; Wolle, Redeate; Heiphetz, Larisa A.

Millions of children in the United States experience parental incarceration, yet it is unclear how this experience might shape social cognition. We asked children of incarcerated parents (N=24) and children whose parents were not incarcerated (N=58) to describe their parents. Both groups of children also rated the extent to which they agree that they feel positive and, separately, negative emotions when thinking about their parent and best friend. This approach allowed us to test between two alternative hypotheses. On the one hand, cultural narratives in the United States convey negative messages about incarcerated people, and these messages could prompt children to report negativity when thinking about their incarcerated parents. On the other hand, children’s positivity toward close others is robust. Thus, when thinking about their incarcerated parent, children may report a great deal of positivity. Consistent with the latter possibility, children were more likely to describe their incarcerated parents using positive rather than negative terms. Moreover, children of incarcerated parents were more likely to agree that thinking about close others made them feel positive emotions than they were to agree that thinking about close others made them feel negative emotions. A similar pattern of results emerged among children whose parents were not incarcerated. These findings demonstrate the robustness of children’s positivity and can inform debates regarding contact between incarcerated parents and their children.


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Journal of Cognition and Development

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September 30, 2020


Keywords: moral cognition; parental incarceration; psychology; social cognition; underrepresented populations