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Statistically, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and there are over 100 million Americans with a criminal record. Incarceration not only impacts individuals, but can also cause familial dysfunction, disrupting the entire family system both psychologically and physically.

While locked up, incarcerated individuals may experience feelings of isolation. They also are likely to experience stigma for being incarcerated. Further, it may be quite challenging to keep in contact with family members and maintain relationships during incarceration. This lack of support can lead to elevated levels of stress and poorer physical and mental health outcomes. Loved ones (e.g., sisters with incarcerated brothers, female partners of incarcerated men, mothers of incarcerated sons, and female coparents of incarcerated men) have reported living with the consequences and feeling shame due to their loved one’s incarceration. When a parent is incarcerated, the responsibility of financial and child support is typically left to caregivers, including non-incarcerated parents, grandparents, and siblings. Moreover, for non-incarcerated family members, mental health concerns and substance use conceivably co-occur, which adds more stress to family members. It is challenging—but recommended for incarcerated individuals, especially those who have children—to maintain connections with their families.

Why does self-efficacy matter for incarcerated fathers? According to the American Psychological Association, self-efficacy is defined as an individual’s confidence in executing behaviors or belief of performing accomplishments, which creates self-control of their behavior, motivation, and social surroundings. Incarcerated individuals experience many stressors and challenges after being released, which may surpass their coping skills. Once they feel overly stressed by the countless obstacles before them during the reintegration process, they may attempt to evade responsibilities by relapsing into substance use or recidivating. Therefore, increasing self-efficacy can benefit incarcerated individuals in many ways, such as having more awareness about their external triggers. Further, it can be beneficial by not engaging in avoidant behavior when feeling stressed. Also, increasing self-efficacy for incarcerated fathers can also bring positive impacts to their children on development of coping skills and prosocial behaviors.

Why does enhancing goal-orientation skills matter to incarcerated fathers? Goal orientation focuses on setting and working towards specific objectives, encouraging individuals to achieve positive outcomes. Self-efficacy influences goal orientation and vice versa. For instance, individuals with high self-efficacy believe in their capabilities and have motivation to engage in challenging activities, viewing them as opportunities for learning and development, and they are more likely to seek personal growth, improve skills, and master tasks. Focusing on increasing self-efficacy as well as goal orientation in clinical work, such as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), has found significant effectiveness in an incarcerated population, including reductions of re-offending, increased marital satisfaction, improvement on emotional states, and higher self-esteem in people convicted of domestic violence offenses as well as in children with incarcerated parents.

Our study focused on incarcerated fathers to examine whether improving self-efficacy and goal-orientation skills for coparenting brings benefits in relationship qualities between incarcerated individuals and their partners. We used data from the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting, and Partnering, which recruited men from state prisons in five states and the women whom those men named as their intimate or coparenting partners. Our study included a sample of 1,746 incarcerated men with an average age of 34 years old. Most had graduated from high school or completed their GED, the vast majority of participants self-described as Black. The average length for the current incarceration was almost 4 years with approximately 3 more years left to serve. More than half reported their average time in the relationship was about 7 years.

What did we discover? In short, we found that regardless of the nature of the parenting or romantic relationship, both partners emphasized the importance of enhancing relational skills for the sake of the child. The primary finding was that both self-efficacy and goal orientation skills of incarcerated fathers are positively correlated with relationship qualities, which means that improving either self-efficacy or goal orientation skills can benefit from increasing relationship satisfaction and connection. Coparenting relationships and support from the outside partner can also increase parenting self-efficacy. In turn, this means that coparenting partners would be more assertive in believing in their capacity to parent effectively (self-efficacy) if they receive support from each other. Moreover, our results showed that education level, life skills education, and incarceration length are all positively and significantly associated with relationship qualities.

Therapeutic services, such as couple and family therapy, are needed for incarcerated individuals however, they have a hard time accessing these services. SFBT has been proved by many studies as an effective therapy method for incarcerated individuals to build self-efficacy as well as goal-oriented skills, and the therapeutic process is emphasized by many researchers, including listening, selecting, and building. Based on our findings, we recommend using interventions from SFBT. Through co-constructive dialogue, the therapist listens for hints of “what will be better” to help clients concretely define what they want and lead toward the client’s preferred future. Systemically, relational questions, for example “What would your partner see you doing that would tell them you are getting closer to your goal?”, are asked can benefit incarcerated individuals from imagining what others would see them doing differently when they focus on their goals and actively work to improve their self-efficacy for themselves and their families. Finally, we hope that more resources will be provided to this population and more attention on their needs for both themselves as individuals and their families as a whole.

Eman Tadros, PhD, LMFT 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 Approved Supervisor, and the Illinois Family TEAM leader. She currently serves as an Assistant Editor for Child: Care, Health and Development. Follow her on X @EmanTadros

Chantal Fahmy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She currently serves as an Associate Editor for Criminal Justice and Behavior. Follow her on X @ChantalFahmy

Sara (Smock) Jordan, PhD, LMFT is the program director, and professor, of UNLV’s Couple and Family Therapy Program.

Antonia Guajardo is a first-generation Latinx counseling student working to empower individuals.