If you’re raising or helping raise a child who has an incarcerated parent, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. The child will have some harsh realities to face early on and they’ll have to work through the emotions of dealing with a parent who can’t be around. It’s hard enough for an adult to handle the separation that comes with a loved one being in prison. It’s even more difficult for children.
The child needs to have a healthy outlet where they can express their feelings. They need to be able to talk about what is going on. Often, kids are told to keep what is happening a secret because the adults don’t want the child to face judgment. But when kids need to stay secretive, they may feel shameful about the circumstances and more unwilling to share about what they’re going through.
Even if the child doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their experience with peers, they need a support system of adults. Additional support outside the home such as a mentor, a support group, or a counselor may be helpful. It’s important to regularly reassure the child that they have nothing to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about. What happened was not their fault. Even if this is obvious to you as an adult, it may not be for the child.
Help the child find positive things in their lives. Find fun activities they’ll enjoy participating in. Try to be a supportive presence in their life. Don’t talk negatively about their parent. Show them you care about them and that you see them. You may feel frustrated at times with the parent who is incarcerated. You may also feel the pressure of having to be the sole provider. But don’t let your stress add to the child’s stress.
Also, get support for yourself. Self-care matters. This doesn’t just benefit your wellbeing but also the child’s welfare. Do your best to care for your health. Reach out to family and friends who can help support you in different ways. Look for a support group you can rely on. Keep positive forces in your life to help you along the way.
When talking to the child about what happened with their parent, It’s best not to lie about the situation. You don’t have to give them every detail. Just be honest, let them know that their parent made a mistake and got into trouble.
The child will probably want to have a connection with their parent. Find out if the prison has programs that can help strengthen the relationship. Also, send letters and encourage the child to draw pictures or write to their parent. Provide photos of the child and schedule regular visits. Make sure to prepare the child for these visits so they know what to expect. And check with the prison to familiarize yourself with any rules or regulations.
It can be difficult for a child to work through the stress, anger, anxiety, and depression that can come from having an incarcerated parent. You can’t change the circumstances but you can be a positive source of support in their lives.
[Monalisa Johnson is a licensed and ordained minister of the gospel and a certified life coach as well as a mother and entrepreneur. In no way is anything that she writes, speaks or shares considered medical advice or clinical therapy. Consider all that you receive to be life coaching and guidance.]