Preparing your kids for their father's return after incarceration
Children whose fathers have been incarcerated may experience numerous challenges when their fathers come home from prison. They have basic needs: a safe place to live and people to care for them in their fathers’ absence, food, clothing, and medical care. One challenge is how the child responded to his or her father’s arrest and subsequent departure. The child may still be affected by the circumstances surrounding the arrest (e.g., forceful removal from the home). Also, when a father is placed in jail or prison, the child is often scared, confused, and upset. The number of times the father has been arrested can also affect how the child responds to the father’s return home. Some children experience a wide variety of behavioral and emotional problems, such as school difficulties, antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression. Many of their problems have been linked to separation, social stigma, and deception about the father’s whereabouts or the reason he is in prison; however, many children seem to adjust relatively well despite their father’s imprisonment.
Often people don’t talk about having a family member in prison because it is very personal information. Children may have a lot of questions, and they need answers. Whether or not it’s the father’s first arrest, there could be a total disruption in the child’s life (e.g., his or her living arrangements could change, visitation with the father could be halted depending on the distance and location of the prison from the child’s residence, and so on).
Consequently, the child needs to be prepared for how his or her life will change once the father returns home from prison. Just as the child was told about the father’s arrest and imprisonment, so should he or she be told the truth about the father’s release. In some cases, the release also could be viewed as a disruption in the child’s life, as well as in the lives of all other parties involved. Other important issues to consider regarding a father’s return home include helping the child readjust to his or her dad’s role in the family, since he may resume child-care and household responsibilities. This will require ongoing communication with the child, mother, father, and caregiver(s) to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations and roles.
Some things will help make the adjustment process easier for the child:
- Create a reintegration plan so the child (and others) are not surprised when dad returns home. Mom and the caregiver(s) should coordinate with dad ahead of time to discuss and agree on how he will be reintegrated into the family unit. Consider the child’s activities and any major occasions (such as holidays and school or community events), and work around them to maintain as much of a daily routine for the child as possible.
- Allow the child to remain in contact with his or her caregiver(s) so there’s a sense of consistency in the relationship between the child and caregiver(s). Short and brief outings or home-based activities with the child, mother, father, and caregiver(s) will ease the transition and further help reintegrate dad back into the child’s life.
- Explain next steps in advance with the child, such as plans for a gradual change, especially if there will be any changes regarding contact between the child and father. Have these discussions in advance, and remind the child regularly so there are no surprises.
- Anticipate various reactions from the child, and encourage the child to share his or her feelings. Remind the child that his or her feelings are normal—and important.
Recognizing these issues and creating meaningful ways to address them is important to help the child adjust to a father’s return home. Also, maintaining a focus on the child’s needs, feelings, and behavior will help create a balance that will be needed during this important transition.
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Camille Quinn is an assistant professor at the Ohio State University College of Social Work. She’s the daughter of a Solo Mom and lives in Ohio.
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