Our parents, or parent, are the very first people that we will ever know. They are the first people we learn to love as we grow from a newborn into a toddler, and eventually an adult. As a kid, they take us to school and pick us up. They might pack your lunch for you each day. They are there when you wake up from a nightmare and run to them for comfort and familiarity. They make each holiday special and chaperone your school field trips. They help you pick out your prom dress and teach you how to drive. And they are there when you graduate high school, crying in the audience as you walk across the stage.
But for some children, this is simply not the case.
The first time I saw my father arrested firsthand was when I was seven years old. By seven, there were already father-shaped gaps in my memory where my dad was simply gone. Years later, I would understand that he was in jail or prison, but as a young child, I was told lies. It is terrifying to watch someone you love, especially a parent, be forced into cuffs right in front of you.
In the United States, 2.7 million children currently have an incarcerated parent.
The National Institute of Corrections also reports that “Over half of those parents are serving time for non-violent offenses.”
92% of parents serving prison time are fathers (fatherhood.org).
In 2016, nearly half of people in state and federal prisons were parents of children under the age of 18 (sentencingproject.org).
Between 1980 and 2012, the number of parents in prison grew roughly five times.
How does this affect kids?
The incarceration of one or both parents has been linked to anxiety and depression in children. In one study, it was revealed that children of an incarcerated father, particularly those who witnessed the arrest, developed insecure attachments to their caregivers (NCBI). This anxious attachment may reveal itself through a child acting “clingy” or becoming anxious when separated from the parent. They may also struggle to calm themselves down once the parent returns.
Having a parent jailed or imprisoned also increases a child’s chance of having learning disabilities such as ADHD and developmental delays (prb.org).
A Dangerous Cycle…
Although statistics on the cycle of incarceration vary widely by source, there is no question that children of incarcerated parents face a set of unique challenges. The sudden removal of a parental figure frequently causes behavioral changes in children which has been found to lead to increased school suspensions and expulsions (National Institute of Justice). It has also been found that the incarceration of a parent may lead to increased risk for antisocial behavior and economic hardship for the child and their caregiver.
In 2017, a study found that “Both present and past parental incarceration was significantly associated with use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs, as well as substance abuse and dependence.” Many studies also demonstrate that children who witness a parent misuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to suffer from substance abuse. This puts them at higher risk of running into issues with the criminal justice system as adults.
"The incarceration of a parent can be especially scarring because of the shame that often surrounds it. Some children may be sensitive to the stigma of their parent's crime and imprisonment and feel embarrassed or resentful around their peers and other adults." - Human Rights Watch article on parental incarceration
This was certainly the case for me. In elementary and early middle school, I frequently found myself lying about my father. It was especially difficult each year when Father’s Day or the daddy-daughter dance would roll around. I would lie to my friends and teachers and explain that my dad simply worked late and couldn’t come to the dance. Or I’d make the Father’s Day card and throw it away when I got home. I was embarrassed and ashamed that my dad was locked up. This is a feeling that many, if not all children of inmates encounter.
The Physical Toll of Separation
Being separated as a child from your parent causes long-term stress to the body. Due to the stress of being separated from their caregiver, a child’s sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. Studies show that this prolonged stress response negatively changes the structure of the child’s brain. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that adverse childhood experiences, such as parental separation, increases the likelihood that a child will face physical health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Numerous studies also show that an over-active amygdala (often found in children who are separated from their parents), alters a child’s ability to assess risk and make informed decisions.
How you can support children of incarcerated parents
As someone who has experienced parental incarceration firsthand, here is some of my best advice to caregivers of children who has a parent incarcerated:
- Help them write and send letters. If the child is very young, have them draw pictures and explain to them how they will send them to their parent.
- If you are their caregiver, encourage them to talk about their parent and help them find words to describe their feelings.
- Refrain from criticizing the incarcerated parent, especially in front of the child. Hearing offhand remarks about their parent only causes more confusion and stress for the kid. You can help the child learn from their parent’s situation by explaining the importance of making good decisions. But shaming the parent in front of the child only furthers the shame, embarrassment, and many conflicting emotions the child is already experiencing.
- If possible, help arrange phone calls. Due to the limited call time, help the child determine what they want to say to their parent BEFORE they call. Help prepare them beforehand so they understand they only have a few minutes to speak to their loved one.
- Allow the child to celebrate the parent on the parent’s birthday. You can aid them in making birthday cards or even bake a cake to honor the parent. The same can be done for other special events and holidays. Find ways you can allow the child to celebrate and hold space for their parent even when they cannot be together. Holidays and special events can be very painful for kids when their parent is incarcerated.
- Discuss with the child’s teachers who report cards will be sent to, who will be attending parent-teacher conferences and other school events so they are not in the dark. This will also help the child feel they can be honest with the teacher and ensure there is no confusion in the classroom.
Written by Tiffany Leveille
Edited by Miriam Itzkowitz
Original Graphics by Tiffany Leveille