Daddy’s in jail

How to talk to kids about parents in prison.

Michigan State University Extension works with families across the state to promote and preserve the healthy social and emotional development of all children. This includes children who are affected by difficult life situations, such as having one (or more) parent serving time in jail. I have had several parents and caregivers approach me with the question of how to talk to children about this difficult subject.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, over the past 10 years the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has increased by 57 percent, as compared to 34 percent for men. Of incarcerated women, 75 percent are mothers. Over half of those incarcerated in both federal and state institutions are parents who have children under age 18, with 22 percent of the children under the age of five.

Children and families face a variety of challenges when one parent is incarcerated. There is often financial instability, especially with already vulnerable families, and caregivers trying to maintain contact between the incarcerated parent and their child. Another challenge can be instability in family relations, structure and housing. In addition it can affect a child’s behavior and academic performance at school. There is often a feeling of shame and social stigma, emotional results of having your parent in jail. It can affect children in different ways, for example some children may be devastated, some may feel ambivalent, and some may feel relief.

Whatever the reaction, there are some things that parents and caregivers can do to help children process and deal with the situation.

  • Maintain routines. Sometimes an incarceration of a parent means a temporary move for the child. Children do best when they know their everyday routine and they take comfort in a consistent schedule.
  • Be honest and open. Use explanations such as, “sometimes adults go to a place called prison or jail, because they broke a rule, called a law.” This is better than having the child feel the parent just disappeared for no reason, leading the child to feel the world is not a trusting place. It is also important for the child to know that the incarceration is not their fault.
  • Talk about feelings. Help them talk about and work through intense emotions. Children may experience a variety of emotion such as sadness, fear, guilt, disbelief, anxiety, anger and powerlessness. This can be scary to a child. Often, just asking children how they are feeling daily, and helping them to name the feeling verbally is a good start. Younger children should be encouraged to draw pictures, and older children should be encouraged to keep a feelings journal.
  • Maintain contact. If and when it is appropriate, maintain contact with the parent in jail through visitation, phone calls and letters. There is evidence that maintaining contact with the incarcerated parent improves a child’s emotional response to the incarceration and helps support the parent-child attachment.

Sometimes, more help is needed, so don’t hesitate to seek professional help such as a counselor to help children process emotions. In addition, it is important to take care of yourself as a caregiver every day. Take some time to do something relaxing just for you each day.

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