How Parental Incarceration Affects Kids
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What Solo Moms and other adults can do to help kids cope
With incarceration rates at an all-time high and increasing numbers of people advocating for alternatives to incarceration, the well-being of one specific population is particularly pressing: the large number of children with parents behind bars. Although no article can substantially cover all the myriad ways that kids can be affected by a parent’s incarceration, here are some of the most common effects the situation can have on kids, along with ways that we—as Solo Moms, aunts, grandmothers, friends, or simply caring adults—can help.
Kids of parents who are incarcerated often blame themselves
Although it’s irrational, a large number of kids who have the opportunity to talk to a trusted adult about their feelings confide that they feel they are somehow responsible for their parent being in jail. The perspectives they share include: “If I had behaved better, my mom wouldn’t have done anything bad” and “My dad stole so I could have things; he was trying to take care of me, so it’s my fault.”
What we can do: We can help kids who blame themselves for a parent’s incarceration by offering a listening ear and reassurance. In some instances, the parent who is incarcerated can provide reassurances, too. We can also offer to connect our children with a helping professional, a school counselor, a mentor, or a spiritual or religious leader with whom they can discuss their feelings.
They are more likely to live in a financially struggling household
Financial hardship can affect kids in several ways, including more frequent absence of a solo parent who must work extra jobs to stay financially afloat; worries about the family’s ability to have basic needs met for food, shelter, and utilities; and going without needed items as well as luxury items that peers at school and in the neighborhood have.
What we can do: We can try to minimize what we share with kids about financial worries. We can also seek financial support through school and government organizations to help make ends meet—programs such as free or reduced school lunch, or lower-cost Internet services for families with financial need whose children are school aged. (Comcast offers such a program in certain areas.) We can also cultivate and model gratitude about the things we do have and pride at doing our best in challenging circumstances. Doing volunteer work with those who are less fortunate can provide an important lesson that there will always be others who have more or less than we do. Lastly, we can coach our kids about ways to respond to friends’ stories about expensive vacations and electronic devices so they are not caught off guard when that happens.
Kids of parents who are incarcerated often worry about their parent who is in jail
When TV and movies portray prisons and jails as places where violent altercations routinely break out and the evening news reports on infrequent but alarming riots, it’s easy to understand why kids might worry that their parent who is incarcerated is not OK.
What we can do: Depending on the child’s age, we can discuss the difference between sensationalist stories and what we know about the more typical reality of day-to-day life in jail. If there is communication with the parent who is incarcerated, that parent can often be enlisted in writing upbeat letters or showing during family visits that they’re physically unharmed.
When I was working with adults incarcerated at a house of corrections, one father told me that he’d been corresponding with his son who had expressed surprise and relief to hear that his father’s facility had a gymnasium for regular exercise and a job-training program. “I think he is less freaked out about it now,” the father told me.
Kids of parents who are incarcerated may be teased and stigmatized
Unfortunately, children of parents who are incarcerated are often subject to stigma by association, especially when a parent’s crime and incarceration has been highly publicized.
How we can help: Kids who are being teased, especially young kids, may need adult intervention at home or at school. We can help by letting kids know that we will listen to them and want to know what’s going on.
They may have academic, emotional, or behavioral problems at school
Kids’ distress about parental incarceration is often overwhelming and affects their school experience, behavior, and learning. The added stress of having a parent who is in jail can make normal daily activities difficult to handle.
What we can do: You can help children navigate these difficulties and get back on track by listening, encouraging, and offering support. Ideally, the school will be helpful by responding firmly but compassionately to behavioral issues, assessing the need for and providing additional services such as tutoring or counseling, and monitoring the child’s emotional and social well-being during the school day. When this is not the case, counselors or therapists outside school can be helpful, along with educational advocates.
They may be more aware of and disturbed by injustice
Children who have a parent who is in jail may be more attuned to social issues, such as the disproportionate rate at which people of color are incarcerated as compared with white people who commit the same or similar crimes, or the potential impact of being financially unable to choose and hire your own lawyer. Children of parents who are incarcerated often feel disempowered and victimized by their family’s circumstances to begin with, and when they become aware of the potential role of racism, classicism, and other social injustices, they may feel particularly angry or hopeless.
What we can do: We can help children in this situation by teaching them about social-justice issues, connecting them with activist groups, and discussing their feelings. If your child meets with a helping professional, it can be particularly helpful to connect your child with a helping professional who shares the same race, ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, and socioeconomic background as your child, as this may help your child feel more free to discuss these concerns openly. Barring that, a helping professional with considerable social-justice knowledge and savvy can be an asset to your child. There is opportunity for kids to be and feel empowered by taking part in organizations and actions promoting social change.
Kids of parents who are incarcerated deal with complex emotional responses
These are some common feelings kids of parents who are incarcerated deal with:
- They may feel chronically angry or have angry outbursts.
- They may feel ashamed and be socially isolated.
- They may develop symptoms of depression or anxiety, or both.
- They may have post-trauma effects from witnessing crime and/or the arrest of a parent.
What we can do: Kids showing these signs usually benefit from a good therapist. It is important to find someone who understands the impact of parental incarceration, is a good fit for your child, and has expertise in addressing the specific signs your child is showing. This is especially true with regard to post-trauma effects, since the field of trauma therapy has changed considerably in the past decade, with approaches that can sometimes reduce or eliminate symptoms in a short time. Ask potential therapists what their background is with regard to trauma treatment, what approach or approaches they use, and why.
They need their parent who isn’t incarcerated to be healthy and engaged
If you are a Solo Mom caring for children whose other parent is incarcerated, it is critically important that you take care of yourself, not only your child. Incarceration is a situation that affects the whole family, but there are ways to get support and make the best of a tough situation. Modeling good self-care for your children can have a powerful positive impact on them and their own ability to cope with their circumstances.
What we can do: It is important to know that you are not alone and that help is available. Spouses and partners of incarcerated individuals often can benefit from supports such as counseling, online or in-person support groups, and developing and maintaining a personal support system. Pay attention to your mental, physical, and emotional needs, and make sure you get the help and support you need in order to be there for your children.
To connect with other Solo Moms who understand your challenges, join our confidential community of Sisters.
Susan Lemere, ESME’s Addiction Resource Guide, is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.