Let’s Set the Scene: Why Mentors & Parental Incarceration?

Hello everyone and welcome to my blog! Throughout the summer I will be posting weekly-biweekly to update y’all on my honors thesis project.

In case you missed my abstract/first post, my honors thesis examines how natural mentors might buffer negative, long-term negative internalizing and externalizing behaviors in emerging adults who experienced parental incarceration using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (AddHealth). For this post, I wanted to explain how I arrived at this topic, why I decided to use AddHealth data, and specific outcomes I will examine.

Why this topic?

I picked this topic for a few reasons. First, natural mentors fascinate me. Natural mentors are supportive adults outside of the nuclear family who naturally enter into an individual’s life. Aunts, coaches, teachers, bosses could all be natural mentors, and most people can think of at least one person in their life who could fit this description. Natural mentors are especially interesting to consider in the context of a risky childhood, as they have the opportunity to provide support to a child, potentially mitigating risk associated with a chaotic household and/or adverse childhood experiences. Second, parental incarceration affects approximately 7% of children in the United States, and these children are incredibly vulnerable (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). Additionally, prior research indicates that parental incarceration is associated with increased internalizing behaviors (i.e. depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation) (Davis & Shlafer, 2017; Thompson, 2019). Prior research also indicates that parental incarceration is associated with increased externalizing behaviors (i.e. delinquency) (Kjellstrand  & Eddy, 2011). Finally, in light of this information, I wondered if children who experienced parental incarceration and who reported having a natural mentor would be less likely to engage in these negative internalizing and externalizing behaviors.

Why AddHealth?

I was explaining my thesis to someone over the weekend, and when I mentioned I had decided to use the AddHealth dataset, they seemed skeptical and asked why I hadn’t collected data. I paused–it is a good question, and one I had thought about quite a bit–and then answered. This dataset is nationally representative and allows me to run analyses with enough power to generalize to 17-21 million people. Parental incarceration affects millions of people in this country, and it is important to me that my analyses have a strong external validity. This will allow me to achieve my ultimate goal of better understanding the relationship between natural mentors and negative, long-term internalizing and externalizing behaviors in emerging adults. I hope that the findings from my thesis can influence further intervention research and implementation strategy that targets children of incarcerated parents.

Why these Outcomes?

I plan to analyze the following four outcomes: depressive symptoms, serious suicidal ideation, suicide attempts within the previous year, number of arrests by early adulthood, and risky drinking habits.

Serious suicidal ideation: this outcome has traditionally been understudied, as it is often difficult to assess.

Suicide attempts within the previous year: see above.

Number of arrests by adulthood: prior research indicates that individuals with a history of parental incarceration are more likely to be arrested than those without such a history.

Risky drinking habits: prior research indicates that individuals with a history of parental incarceration are more likely to be engage in risky drinking habits than those without such a history.

I plan to analyze the effects of both the presence of a mentor at some point during adolescence-early adulthood and current closeness of the mentor in early adulthood.

Presence of a mentor: Does having a mentor at some point during adolescence or early adulthood make an impact?

Current closeness of a mentor: Does duration and/or currently feeling close to someone make an impact?

Thanks for reading, I’m so excited to share this research journey with you! Check back next week for some fun musings on data cleaning!


References & Further Reading

Davis, L., & Shlafer, R. J. (2017). Mental health of adolescents with currently and formerly incarcerated parents. Journal of Adolescence, 54, 120–134.

Kjellstrand, J. M., & Eddy, J. M. (2011). Mediators of the Effect of Parental Incarceration on Adolescent Externalizing Behaviors. Journal of Community Psychology, 39(5), 551–565.

Thompson, M. P., Kingree, J. B., & Lamis, D. (2019). Associations of adverse childhood experiences and suicidal behaviors in adulthood in a U.S. nationally representative sample. Child: Care, Health and Development, 45(1), 121–128.

Wakefield, S., & Wildeman, C. (2018). How Parental Incarceration Harms Children and What to Do About It. Retrieved from Parental Incarceration Harms Children NCFR Policy_Full Brief_Jan. 2018_0.pdf



  1. I love your topic of study and would be curious to see similar studies done with children with a parent who has an addiction issue.