By Bonnie Hartley
Having a parent incarcerated has to be one the hardest things to go through as a child. For younger children it’s a complete lack of actual understanding as to why daddy or mommy is gone. With older children there is anger, sadness, worry and stigma to deal with on top of that. The parent or caregiver left behind must adapt to raising the child or children on their own and figure out ways to help keep the missing parent a part of their life’s still. It can feel extremely overwhelming at times for not just the parents but the children as well.
While doing some of my own research to help myself and my children I stumbled across a few helpful articles some books and a few videos, but there is definitely not enough out there, in my opinion, to help. I am constantly looking for ways to assist us all through it all, this is my children’s only childhood and I refuse to let them miss out on it because of our situation.
Matthew Lynch, who writes for The Edvocate, put together a list that I really liked:
Continue communication – Staying in contact is just as crucial to the child as it is to the incarcerated parent. Conversation can take the form of notes and letters, scheduled visits, and pre-arranged phone calls. Be aware, however, that a missed communication can trigger emotional outbursts in the child.
Knowledge is power – If developmentally appropriate and agreeable to the incarcerated parent, help children understand why their parent is in prison.
Focus on a new hobby — Encourage the child to express her emotions and any possible anxiety through creative or athletic outlets.
Talk it out – Let the child of imprisoned parents vent. It’s normal to miss a parent, regardless of the reason that parent is absent. Caregivers can validate the child’s feeling and show their concern by listening.
Therapy – By working with a therapist, your child will have an opportunity to explore his or her feelings and develop coping strategies.
If you have younger children Sesame Street has a Coping with Incarceration Toolkit. There is a ton of useful information on the page ranging from videos, printables, coloring pages etc.
For older children something to help foster their relationship with their incarcerated parent could be purchasing the child and the parent the same book, something on a topic that interests the child, and allowing them to read it “together”. While reading the book they can write to one another about it, similar to a book club situation. My daughter loves the fact that she and her father are reading the same book at the same time. We also do interviews. I ask each kid a series of questions about themselves, then we mail them off to daddy. Drawings are also a great way to help communication flowing. Some facilities do not allow mail with crayons, markers, or paint, so take a picture of the artwork to send without worrying about whether it will be accepted. I’ve seen my children’s face when a rejected piece of artwork is returned to them, their little hearts are broken, so we try to find ways to keep that from happening. Kids grow so fast, so sometimes I’ll make photo collages over the span of a few months to help their dad see the changes they are going through. Our kids were 11 and 8 when he left, they are now 14 and 11. Sometimes I feel like he does not recognize how much they are changing, almost like they are frozen in time in his head, seeing the changes in photos helps with that. We also set aside phone call time for each of them, once a week. They each get their own phone call, and we do a family call as well. For the family call I put him on speaker phone and we chit chat just as we would’ve done around the dinner table before he left. Anything to help keep a sense of normalcy in our relationships.
Above all, the best thing anyone can do for any child in this situation is to just help them understand that none of it is their fault and that it does not matter where mom or dad is. What is most important is that they know you and their incarcerated parent love them and that you are there for them no matter what.