The first time my brother was incarcerated, it hit me really hard. As the older sibling, it had always been my responsibility to take care of him. Somehow his incarceration felt like it was my fault. Over time, though, the new reality for our family was something I had learned to live with. So when he was most recently incarcerated I didn’t worry much about it until my children started to question why their favorite uncle wasn’t around. I struggled to explain how their loved one was in a place where “bad guys” go.
For a lot of children, they learn about prison first from movies, shows, and games of cops and robbers. This can teach kids a very black-and-white view of the prison system in America. Cops here are supposed to be the good guys, and anyone who is incarcerated gets labeled as “bad”. Of course, we know it’s not always that simple.
My personal experience with an incarcerated loved one
When I told my sons (5 and 7 years old) about their uncle being incarcerated, I was hesitant to call it what it was. I used placeholder phrases like he “went away” to work on himself, or said he was at a “camp” to help him get more responsible. All versions of the spun story made me feel guilty for keeping something like this from them when they knew something was off.
All versions of the spun story made me feel guilty for keeping something like this from them when they knew something was off.
Kids notice things. They asked why a robot voice would ask us to accept phone calls from an unfamiliar place or why he couldn’t visit or FaceTime us like he used to. I spent months debating whether it was best to tell them the truth. Here, with the help of an expert, we’re sharing how to talk with children about an incarcerated loved one.
Tips for talking to kids about an incarcerated loved one
The level of the relationship will influence how a child is affected by a loved one’s incarceration. An uncle, for example, will feel different than a parent. While some children may fare better with the removal of the loved one who has been imprisoned, others who have strong relationships may feel the loss more and with an increased risk of complications. This is why it can be helpful for caregivers to evaluate and communicate with the child to see whether or not continuing to facilitate a relationship via visits, phone calls, or letters is in their best interests.
A child of an incarcerated parent can also have higher risks of having certain challenges with school, antisocial behavior, economic struggle, and even criminal activity. But if the child has a continuous, healthy support network, it can help them overcome some of the unique challenges children of an incarcerated parent face.
1. In most cases it is best to tell the truth
When I talked to Marcella Moslow, LCSW, RPT, she emphasized the importance of developmentally appropriate language that is tailored on a case-by-case basis depending on the child and relationship with the incarcerated loved one.
Sharing why a loved one is missing can be extremely difficult, but children often fare better when they know where their parent or family member is, especially when they were present for the arrest. It is best to start with an age-appropriate conversation with the child. Staying silent or lying about the situation can harm the child’s ability to cope with the loss. If you do not tell the truth to the child in your care they may find out from someone else, the news, or from social media and that could in turn harm the trust you have with them and may make them distance themselves.
Some tips to remember:
- Stick to the facts
- Make them age-appropriate
- Simplify rather than over-explain with small children
- Only tell the child that the parent will call/be released when you know for a fact
- Do not tell the child white lies to make them feel better
- Older children and teens deserve to know as much information as possible
If the parent was imprisoned for violence or abuse that endangered the child, it is a much more difficult conversation that should be discussed further with a therapist who specializes in trauma-informed therapy.
2. Provide tools to help protect the child’s mental health
Some ways to help support the child with an incarcerated loved one, can be bringing them to therapy consistently, finding an experienced mentor who works with children of incarcerated parents, reaching out to the school for support, and practicing how to express big emotions in a healthy way. It can be helpful to connect with resources available in your community and communicate the situation to trusted adults in the child’s life so they can assist them better at school or extracurricular activities.
It can also be helpful to role-play certain conversations the children may have with friends or strangers who have questions about their parent’s (or loved one’s) absence. Brainstorm how much the child is willing to share and how much is safe to do so and practice setting boundaries like “I appreciate your curiosity, but this is a family matter I do not wish to discuss right now.”
“I would always recommend for families to seek out a professional to get support in how to share that information and navigate any questions/feelings/behaviors that come up as a result of that information,” Moslow added. “It is also really helpful to have professional help with navigating what contact will look like and how to appropriately prepare and support a child with that.”
3. Recognize the trauma they may have been subjected to leading up to the arrest and afterward
We need to remember that before the incarceration of the loved one, there may or may not be moments of instability that could have already increased the chance of behavioral problems with the child. For example, families who struggle with poverty are more likely to experience parental incarceration than those who are at least double the poverty level. Black and brown parents are overrepresented in the prison population as well.
Reassure the child that it is not their fault and lay out a plan for their care. Many children of incarcerated family members have had or will have spent some time in foster care, which can make the situation even more distressing as they lose their home, familiar clothes and toys, or beloved pet. Again, it is important to seek out help from a counselor or mentor to navigate these complex situations.
Additional resources for talking to kids about an incarcerated loved one
As I mentioned, a strong support network is so important and can help provide you with tons of resources. Laura the “Foster Parent Partner” is a new friend of mine in the adoption community that helped recommend so many wonderful resources to help my family and others. Check them out here:
- When a Parent is Incarcerated: A Primer for Social Workers and Foster Parents
- Social Workers: Supporting Youth with Incarcerated Parents
- Supporting Children and Families Affected by Parental Incarceration
- Raising Children with a Parent in Prison
- Sesame Street: Incarceration
To be completely honest, I never wanted to have to tell my sons they had an incarcerated loved one. I felt like I was failing my children by exposing them to things that had been family secrets for so long. So I had to work on surrounding myself with a better support network as well to help better prepare myself to support my kids. And when I finally had the courage to my own kids the truth, it went more smoothly than I expected.