Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tough Stuff: When a Parent is in Jail/Prison

It’s a scary thought- that either you or your child’s other parent could wind up in jail. An even scarier thought? That your child would have to face the reality of having an incarcerated parent. But it is the reality for about 3 million kids every day.

It’s easy to say ‘that would never happen to my family.’ It’s also very easy to judge the families that it happens to. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard was told to me by a mentor in college: ‘On the whole, most every parent is trying to do the very best for his or her child.’ In short: don’t judge parents.

In situations where one or both parents are incarcerated, it’s up to the other parent or some other caregiver (often a grandparent, aunt, uncle, foster parent) to care for the child, who will undoubtedly have many questions about where his or her parent is. Unfortunately, very few resources exist for these caregivers. However, one book that tackles this extremely tough situation is What Will Happen To Me? By Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz.

What Will Happen To Me? profiles several children, giving glimpses into their thoughts and emotions when they had to deal with having an incarcerated parent. But, in my opinion, the crème de la crème of this book is the latter half that gives caregivers a guide to caring for children who have a parent in jail or prison. The guide takes caregivers through:
  • Questions frequently asked by children and suggested answers based on the opinions of early childhood experts and rules of the prison systems
  • Dealing with specific emotions children may experience as a result of having an incarcerated parent
  • The logistics of staying in touch with incarcerated parents
  • Handling the return of a parent from jail or prison
  • Self care for caregivers
  • A ‘Bill of Rights’ for children of incarcerated parents

The book is great and based on the guide, here are a few take home points:
1.     Always tell children the truth about where their parent is
2.     Children will need lots of reassurance regarding their emotions and feelings during this difficult time
3.     Communication with the parent is important, if possible
4.     Self care for the caregiver is important, as is an outlet for emotions


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