Dana L. Cunningham, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist and Author
Over five million children in the United States have been impacted by the incarceration of a parent, and due to the disproportionate number of Black people who are incarcerated, Black children are significantly impacted by the criminally unjust system in our nation. While it is a highly stressful event for a parent to be incarcerated, it is just as devastating and stressful for the families and children who are left behind.
Children of incarcerated parents often have to deal with a multitude of stressors that can create a significant disruption in their lives. For example, many children may have to live with another caregiver, experience financial strain in their families, and become subject to the additional stress that their caregiver(s) experiences as a result of the incarceration. Those experiences for a child of an incarcerated parent become even more distressing with the compounded sense of shame, stigma, and loss that they often feel.
Unfortunately, many children of incarcerated parents often suffer in silence because of the negative perceptions that many people have of persons who are in jail or prison. It is critical for children of incarcerated parents to receive our support are here are a few ways that we can help them:
1. Tell them the truth
Far too often, children are not told the truth about where their parents are when they are incarcerated. Some family members may make up stories about a parent being away at college, the military, or even the hospital. While the intention to protect the child from harm is positive, being dishonest about where their parent is will only create more problems in the future. Children are often smart enough to discover the truth, and when they do, will have to deal with the pain of being lied to as well as the harsh reality of what happened to their parent.
2. Have positive expectations
Just because a child has a parent in jail does not mean that they are destined to repeat their parent’s mistakes or will exhibit behavioral or emotional problems. While it can certainly be a stressful and traumatic experience to have a parent in jail or prison, many children of incarcerated parents are extraordinarily resilient. Those children who are resilient often have a strong support system to help them get through those difficult times.
3. Treat their parents as people, not things
While this seems simple, parents who are incarcerated are more often referred to as nouns- convicts, prisoners, ex-cons, offenders, or felons which are dehumanizing terms. We must remember that many people who are incarcerated are parents too. Parents don’t stop being parents just because they are incarcerated. It is critical to find ways for parents to maintain relevant and authentic involvement in their children’s lives, even though they are incarcerated.
4. Maintain the relationship
When it is safe to do so, supporting a child in maintaining a relationship with their parent can be beneficial not only for the child, but also for their parent. Although the parent is not present physically, they can still provide emotional support. Maintaining the relationship between the parent and child will also make the transition back home easier for both of them.
Dana L. Cunningham, Ph.D.
Dr. Cunningham is a Licensed Psychologist, Co-Founder of Black Mental Wellness, and author of A Day I’ll Never Forget which she wrote to help support children who are impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. A Day I’ll Never Forget is available on Amazon. You can learn more about A Day I’ll Never Forget on Dr. Cunningham’s website- www.booksbydrdana.com