Yinka Read, MA

Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology

Widener University

Incarceration has numerous damaging effects on societal welfare. One of our most vulnerable populations, children, is especially susceptible to these effects. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008 approximately 1.7 million children had a parent in prison.

Various circumstances surrounding parental incarceration can affect the child just as much as the actual removal of the parent affects him/her. For example, witnessing a parent being arrested, unstable living environments, stigma, strained parenting from the remaining caregiver, placement in the foster care system, economic strain and instability, and being separated from siblings as the result of a parent’s incarceration are no less traumatic than a parent being removed from the home. Furthermore, the removal of a parent from the family unit can exponentially exacerbate preexisting challenges to family functioning.

A child’s reaction

A child may react any number of ways to a parent’s incarceration. It is important to remember that the disruption between the parent-child bond is traumatic. Children may become moody, aggressive, irritable, and engage in antisocial and impulsive behaviors (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing); their grades may drop or they may become disruptive in school. Children may also react with depressed mood, withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances, feelings of shame, guilt and/or abandonment, poor self-concept, eating disorders, inattentiveness, developmental regression, and feelings of resentment towards the incarcerated parent. Children may also hold opposing emotions toward the parents such as longing, love and admiration as well as anger, fear, and resentment. Caregivers should be vigilant of emotional and behavioral reactions, even if they are subtle.

Interventions to cope

Fortunately, there are things that caregivers and loved ones can do to address these challenges. Initiating inquiring conversations with children about how they feel about the incarcerated parent can be helpful. Caregivers should initiate conversations regularly since the child’s understanding and feelings about the parent may evolve over time, especially nearing the release date. It is important to ask questions and listen to what the child has to share. Inquire about how the child is feeling about the incarceration and the parent, what difficulties they’re experiencing, what they “know” about the offense, and potential release dates.

Depending on the charges and the child’s age, the parent may want to discuss circumstances surrounding the offense or correct misinformation that the child may have acquired through other sources. Often times, children are more aware of the circumstances surrounding incarceration than caregivers know. Therefore, providing clear and honest explanations for the parent’s absence is key. It is also important to help the child understand that the parent’s offense is not a reflection of his/her self-worth.

The purpose of these conversations is to establish a genuine understanding of how the child feels, normalize these feelings, and help the child work through them. Therefore, caregivers should refrain from impressing their own feelings on the child. Children are incredibly perceptive, and may feel discouraged if they sense that the caregiver is disapproving or overly critical of the incarcerated parent.

Providing or facilitating stable care arrangements during parental imprisonment can also be incredibly beneficial. Offering the child predictability and structure after such a traumatic experience can be healing. Even if interactions with the incarcerated parent were chaotic, it was familiar to the child, so that disruption of the familiar is distressing. Establishing and maintaining a new routine with the child can help them feel safe and readjust to life without mom or dad.

Involvement in activities such as theatre, sports, and church can also help the child cope. These activities may help build confidence, act as an outlet for anger and frustration, distract him/her from stressors at home, and provide opportunities to establish healthy peer friendships. Additionally, involving children in mentoring or social support groups with children in similar circumstances can help combat feelings of isolation and stigma as the child can have discussions with peers who understand the unique challenges of having an incarcerated parent.

Resources for Caregivers

* Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration

* Angel Tree – provides religious ministry, mentoring, and support to children and families of prisoners. Distributes holiday gifts to children of prisoners and provides a children’s camping program.

* Amachi Mentoring – provides one-to-one mentors to children whose parents are incarcerated or recently released.

Exclusive to the Delco News Network, Peace of Mind is a monthly column addressing mental health issues. It is written by doctoral interns of the Widener University Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology. If you have an idea for a column, or a question for the author, contact Jennifer Dublisky Kitchen at jakitchen@widener.edu or call 610-499-1329.

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