More than 1.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. These children often suffer from emotions like shame related to the offenses of their parents, grief related to the absence of their parents, and withdrawal from the activities of their peers. Many also exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety and nightmares and these symptoms may contribute to their own poor choices if not given the support they need. Here are some ways to help:
It will not always be appropriate for parents to be in contact with their children. However, if safe, the bond between parent and child is important regardless of the behavioral choices of the parent. There are many ways to nurture this bond between them, even while separated.
Children need contact with their parents. Travel to and from jail or prison takes time and money. Phone calls are also expensive and require scheduling coordination. The cost of stamps adds up quickly, too.
Help with the child's transition to life without their incarcerated parent. When parents go to jail or prison, the children often change homes. They may live with a single parent instead of two, or with a step-parent or grandparent. Some go to a foster home. Any of these arrangements mean a change in lifestyle, routine, and rules at home - and often includes a change in the neighborhood, school, and community.
It is helpful to explain at the child's developmental level why the parent is not living at home. Children have rules, and even young ones can understand that a parent broke rules. Inside Out Connections suggests explaining that the parent broke rules, and jail is a long time-out for adults who break rules.
With so many changes and so much upheaval, one of the best ways to help is offering stability. Keep your promises. Stick to the routine. Because children sometimes struggle to gain accurate knowledge about their incarcerated parents, or have been previously hurt by the chaos of criminality or addiction, it will be important to always tell the truth and be upfront with them. They need to feel safe and stable, and many of these children may be hyper vigilant - waiting for the next time their world will be turned upside down.
Besides explaining what has happened to the parent, the child needs to know that whatever they are feeling is normal. Model healthy emotional expression. Younger kids will need active play to process big emotions, and older kids may need journaling or artistic expression.
Children with incarcerated parents need to know their bond with parents may remain, but the behavior of their parents does not reflect on them. They need safe environments in which to live, with stable routines and structure that enables them to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. Loved ones can support these children by modeling healthy expression and helping the child adjust to living without their parent. When safe and possible, it is helpful to contribute time and money toward the child remaining in contact with their parent.