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Children of Incarcerated Parents: Homecoming Realities

How do children adjust when a parent returns home from prison? Many experts agree, that that the answer to the question largely depends on their relationship and the communication maintained (or not) during the parent’s imprisonment. Given such, communication is central and key to a child's relationship with the incarcerated parent. Hart-Johnson et. al (2020) recommends that caregivers should prepare children before a parent returns home by having age-appropriate discussions. All families differ, but regardless, it is important to inform children of where their parents have gone –without necessarily disclosing details of the crime.

When a parent goes to prison, some children may feel like they have been abandoned, or perhaps they have kept their parent’s incarceration a secret. Some children have even lied to others about their parent’s whereabouts because of the shame and stigma (Hart-Johnson et al., 2020).

When a parent is incarcerated, talk to children about how you imagine the household changing, including household chores, change of school, or even sleeping arrangements. If children harbor anger, let them express what or how they are feeling about the parent.

When a parent returns home from prison the stress and crisis may not be over. When preparing for a parent’s reentry, children should also be allowed to express their feelings about their returning parent. This may require several heartful conversations between the child and their caregivers/parents.

A parent’s return home might stretch the family budget and result in some financial challenges. By almost any measure, the returned parent will alter every dynamic in the house. On the positive side, the returned parent can provide support during the child's development years. Books are a wonderful source of engagement for parents.

Ann Adalist-Estrin, listed 4 periods of children’s adjustment needed for a parent’s parole:

1. Honeymoon: Everyone’s at their best and trying to please but often there is anxiety under the surface;

2. Suspicion: Once children are comfortable letting some the negative feelings emerge, they often question their previously incarcerated parent’s roles, motives, and most of all the permanence of their presence;

3. Resistance: During this stage, children test the limits of the rules and with their actions ask the question “how bad can I be and will you still love me;”

4. Expressing or withholding [emotions]: Can I show my feelings and ask my questions or should I “stuff” them.

Adalist-Estrin postulated that parents must receive adequate support, information, and counseling, post-prison, and parole to help them understand their children’s feelings, as well as their own. In this regard, helping professionals who assist affected children should provide them with a forum to express themselves.

Researchers of a multi-site study on incarceration, parenting, and partnering provided estimates that more than half of the persons in federal and state prisons have children under the age of 18; this is approximately 1.7 million minor children (ASPE Research, 2016).

Many of life’s most challenging times are also times of reflection, and possible teachable moments, including notions of good and bad choices and consequences. This might also be an opportunity to discuss ideas such as loneliness and forgiveness. Don’t fret over having all the answers or even addressing all the possible dynamics involved with the returning family member. However, you may discover that your child has understandings about imprisonment, as well as unaddressed questions about this subject matter.

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