--by Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson
Explaining the sudden disappearance of a parent can be quite challenging, especially when a parent is in jail or prison. However, telling the truth is far better than being dishonest. After all, parents are generally the first teachers who model and demonstrate the skillsets needed to navigate life. While these discussions can be challenging, there is a bit of good news. Children are generally more resilient than we know. Children can and often do recover from some of life’s most difficult challenges and go on to become thriving adolescents and successful adults.
Difficult discussions are, by their nature, challenging. Finding just the right words to convey regarding parental incarceration requires empathy, sensitivity, and truthfulness. The task can seem daunting, especially when children are under ten years of age. Attuned parents use empathy, taking note of a child’s disposition, uniqueness, and temperament. Sensitivity includes understanding how a child is doing mentally, emotionally, socially, and even physically. Obviously, if a child is impaired in any way, it would appear that parents may wish to adjust their conversations with the child accordingly. A caregiver might also recognize a child’s temperament, knowing they may need extra attention and support after such an emotionally taxing discussion.
Get Ready for the Talk
Chances are, you know your child better than others. Picking the right time and place, while also giving the discussion your full attention is essential to having a successful outcome.
During our most recent research study (2018 through 2019), we interviewed caregivers who shared a few techniques that may be helpful for parents who struggle with these types of discussions. These tips might alleviate the tension for both the caregiver and the child. The following are a few tips:
Plan the discussion. We all may recall rehearsing talking points for an anticipated difficult discussion at one point or another. Practicing might help with the uneasiness. It is also an opportunity to work through the awareness and/or challenging points where we might otherwise be lost for words. Anticipating the child's emotional response and even practicing your reaction to emotionally laden news is a good idea. Remember, jot down a few of the critical talking points and rehearse.
Use Age-developmentally Appropriate Language. Consider the child's age and temperament. A discussion might start with,
· [Five Years and Under] “Mom/Dad is not coming home tonight. You do not have to worry. I am here for you. I will make your dinner and take good care of you.” Dr. Alan Yellen indicated that it is best to say where the parent is. For example, saying, “Mom/Dad will not be coming home to spend time with you tonight because they are in jail. We can talk with Mom/Dad by phone tomorrow....would you like that? You can tell Mom/Dad how much you miss them.” Yellen says that it is best, to be honest, and use the words jail or prison. Let them know that the facility is a place where grownups go when they violate (grown-up) rules.
· [Six to Ten Years of Age] "I need to discuss something important with you. I want you to know that your mom/dad is not coming home this evening because they are at the police station working out some important matters." Perhaps your child witnessed the arrest. In this case, you may tailor the discussion and say something similar to: “I know it was scary to see your mom/dad taken away. They were taken to the police station to discuss important matters. I am going to be here with you and take care of you.” "How are you feeling?" It is important to check in with the child to find out how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
· [Adolescents] Older children are better positioned to understand difficult topics. They also have may have a personal history that helps them understand that they will eventually recover when bad things happen. The Prison Fellowship organization reminds parents that it is important to tell children they are supported. Remind children that you care for and love them. Lead by example and model emotional intelligence. This does not mean that you are teaching children to suppress their emotions, but rather, help them to modulate their feelings. Let them know that sadness is a normal response to separation and loss. Inform children that it is okay to be a child.
Make sure Children Know They are not to Blame. Children need to be reminded that parental incarceration is not their fault. Otherwise, they may feel as though they must suffer the consequences of parental incarceration by denying themselves recreation and fun activities.Young children tend to have egocentric thinking. Reinforce that the parent's circumstance is not the child’s fault that their mom or dad is incarcerated. Let them know that grownups sometimes make unwise decisions. Sometimes those decisions result in negative circumstances such as going to court, jail, or prison. Ensure that children understand that there are severity levels of making unwise and wrong choices in life. Children make mistakes too. However, let the children know that most childhood errors in judgment do not equate to the severity of levels that result in going to prison or jail. Children should be taught that making small mistakes will not result in severe consequences. Never underestimate what a child might be thinking, even if they seem mature. Children tend to have exaggerated thinking and may feel that making small errors may cause them serious trouble with the law.
Be Honest and Disclose Only Necessary Information. Think in terms of abstract versus detail. Children need to know that their parents are okay. They do not need to know the details of a crime. The abstract version of the story might highlight such points as “...your mom/dad is going to be away from home for a period of time. We do not know how long.” “I do not have the answers right now, but I will keep you updated when I learn more.” Each of these statements might be honest disclosure while only disclosing limited information. It is unfair for children to shoulder the burden of details of an alleged crime and circumstances.
Plan to Provide Extra Support, Especially During Holidays. Children tend to feel especially bad when their parents are incarcerated during holidays and special milestones. The absence of a parent is especially noticeable during these times when other children have their parents with them. If you are the caregiver, be supportive. Attend important events, giving the child the support they need. While no one can substitute for the incarcerated parent, having a support network of friends and family is important. Children feel valued and loved.
Never “Talk Bad” About the Other Parent. This tip simply means that parents should not use disparaging remarks and talk adversely about the other parent.
Be Aware of Your Behavior. Stress makes parents behave in interesting ways. Sometimes a parent is physically present but emotionally unavailable. Consequently, children with an incarcerated parent may feel like they have lost both parents. Develop a sense of self-awareness. Let children know that you are having a tough day and that you are working through the challenges. As you recover from such a stressful time, children find hope by witnessing your behavior. Through modeling your own emotional recovery, you teach children that they too can rebound from tough days and tough times.
The following are a few additional resources:
DC Project Connect’s Children’s Books (about parental incarceration): Publications |DC Project Connect | United Sta
Talking With Friends About Incarceration: My Friend’s Home – CT Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative (ctcip.org)
Chances are, you know your child better than others. Picking the right time and place while also giving the discussion your full attention is essential to having a successful outcome.
Help Children Develop Self-Regulation: How To Support Self-Regulation Across Disciplines | CPI (crisisprevention.com)
Six Ways to Boost Resilience in Children: 6 Things Parents Can Do to Boost Resilience in Kids – Psychology Benefits Society
About the Author: Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson is the president and co-founder of DC Project Connect. Dr. Hart-Johnson is a researcher and university educator. She has authored several publications and curricula on the topics of incarceration and its impact on family systems. She is the Vice President of the International Children With Incarcerated Parents organization. Her work with INCCIP colleagues involves advocating for children around the globe who are impacted by this social phenomenon.