Dad's Coming Home

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Homecoming Realities

A multi-site Family Study on incarceration, parenting, and partnering, 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).

How do children adjust when a parent returns from prison? Many experts agree, that much depends on their relationship and the communication maintained (or not) during the parent’s imprisonment. Hart-Johnson et al (2020) recommends that caregivers should prepare children before a parent returns home. All families differ, but regardless, it is important to let children express their feelings about their returning parent. This may require several heartful conversations.

Some children may feel like they have been abandoned, or perhaps they kept their parent’s incarceration a secret or even lied to others about their parent’s whereabouts. (Hart-Johnson et al, 2020). When possible, talk to them about how you imagine the household might change, including household chores, sleeping arrangements. If they harbor anger, let the child express what or why they feel this way about the parent.

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.

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. For your child, he/she will have another source of discipline, as well as another mouth to feed. On the positive side, the returned parent will provide someone else to explore life with, including movies, sports, concerts, plays, and trips to the playground.

Ann Adalist-Estrin, listed 4 periods in an article entitled, Homecoming: Children’s Adjustment to 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. Expression or Withholding: Can I show my feelings and ask my questions or should I “stuff” them.

Adalist-Estrin postulates 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.

__Dr. Geoffrey Johnson, April 29, 2020

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