By Terra Ours, LCSW, Courier & Press, Nov. 15, 2016 – Michael is being raised by a single mom who recently went to prison with a 10-year sentence. What effect will his mother’s incarceration have on 7-year-old Michael?
It is often said that we don’t incarcerate a person, we incarcerate a family. This statement is especially true when considering the impact of parental incarceration on children.
Studies show parental incarceration can be more traumatic for children than death or divorce. The effect on a child’s health, education and relationships puts them at an elevated risk for future incarceration as well.
The impact of parental incarceration on a child’s educational process is overwhelming. However, this issue is difficult for schools to track and often becomes hidden and overlooked when the child “flies under the radar,” performing fairly well academically but is left to deal with the trauma, shame and stigma alone.
Lower grades, poor health leading to chronic absenteeism, lower school engagement, increased behavioral problems, learning disabilities and anxiety are just a few of the issues children may experience when they have a parent in prison.
Children often also experience anger, depression and anxiety related to being separated from their parent. These children are at an increased risk for experiencing additional “adverse childhood experiences,” otherwise known as ACEs. Research has shown that cumulative ACEs are often an indicator of childhood trauma and a precursor to future mental and physical health problems.
As a Youth First Social Worker in area schools, I have witnessed the devastating effects on a child with an incarcerated parent. Children are often too embarrassed to seek help for fear of being ridiculed by classmates. This leaves the child to bear the secret alone.
What do we do to help children experiencing the impact of an incarcerated loved one?
As long as the parental relationship is safe, it is very important for children to be able to maintain a relationship with their parent during the incarceration. Visits, letters or phone conversations can calm a child’s fears about their parent’s welfare and the parent’s feelings for them.
Reach out to the prison to identify resources available to help the child stay connected. If a child is unable to physically visit their parent, make resources available so the child is able to call or mail letters.
Explain to the child, at the appropriate developmental level, why the parent is not living in the home. Children have rules, and even very young children can understand the consequences of breaking a rule.
Help the child understand they did not have a part in the incarceration of their parent. Children will often take the blame for circumstances beyond their control. Help the child understand they are not at fault for what has happened, and what they are feeling is completely normal.
Most importantly, advocate for the child to receive resources and support within the community. Seek out social workers in the child’s school to help locate additional resources and assistance with addressing traumas related to the incarceration. Encourage the child to speak to a counselor, empowering the child to tell their story.