How to Help Kids Cope with a Parent’s Incarceration

Almost three million children in the United States must cope daily with a parent’s incarceration. Another two million children report having had a parent in prison in the past. The problem is huge. Schools and programs like Sesame Street have stepped in to assist adults in helping the children who are the real victims of incarceration.

Fear about the stigma of incarceration is real for many children. Many students whose parents are in prison feel shame and disgrace about the circumstances of their parent’s absence. These children often come from low-income housing and racial minorities, which can compound their disadvantages they experience.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, children whose parents are incarcerated are more likely to:

  • Suffer from poor health
  • Develop ADHD, learning disabilities and developmental delays, and
  • Present with behavior challenges.

Teens in this situation are more likely to demonstrate a disregard to for law. They may experiment with drugs and engage in other risky behaviors. When their peers find out where the absent parents are, students may find themselves ostracized.

Consider using one or more of these methods to help kids cope with fear about a parent’s incarceration:

  • 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.

For younger children, Sesame Street offers an Incarceration Toolkit to help children and their caregivers cope with the emotional pain of having an incarcerated parent.

Kids miss their incarcerated parents, but more importantly, they are missing out on the opportunity to develop a bond with the person most important in guiding their lives.

You can help children overcome their incarceration fears.


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