The stats might surprise you, but more than 5 million children have had at least one parent in prison at one time or another! That's 7% of all US children.
This figure is probably an underestimate since non-residential incarcerated parents were not included in the survey. And children from rural areas and black or poor families are more highly represented in these numbers.
So how to help a child whose parent is in jail? What can you do to ensure that the child still grows up in a normal way as much as possible without too much trauma associated with the lack of parental units?
Below, we go through 6 things that you can do to help children with one or both parents in jail.
1. Ensure the Economic Hardship Isn’t Felt Too Harshly
Unfortunately in a lot of cases, the incarcerated parent is usually the breadwinner in the family. This means that their disappearance can create a huge burden on the rest of the family to provide for the children financially. That's why, as the adult in charge, you need to try and alleviate this burden as much as possible.
You can do this, of course, by providing monetary compensation. But more than that, ensure that you keep an eye on the child, to ensure that he or she doesn't act out or become anxious, depressed, or aggressive in school, as a way of relieving their stress.
2. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
One primary way you can ensure that the affected child isn't too direly affected by the circumstances is by assuring them repeatedly that they can come to talk to you about whatever's going on with them, no matter what.
With their parents not being around, they are going to feel even more alone than they normally do. They will have no one to speak to, about whatever they are going through at school or otherwise. If you can become that support system for them by giving guidance or advice on important subjects, that will help the child of incarcerated parents quite a lot.
It might not be something that comes naturally to you, especially if you don't have children of your own, but with time and practice, you will become better at becoming the ideal support system for this child in need.
3. Explain to Them What’s Going on as Soon as They Are Old Enough
Sometimes the child is too young to understand why their parent had to leave them with a grandparent or someone else. But even then, it's possible to explain to them with words at their level that their parents love them very much and had to leave for some unforeseen reason.
Of course, as soon as the child is old enough to understand what incarceration means and why their parent is in prison, it's important to explain in detail what happened and why.
Children are more perceptive than you realize, and you are doing them a disservice by treating them like they are 3 years old, even they are old enough to understand more. Also, this will give them a chance to stop blaming themselves for their parents leaving, which is something that children do quite often.
4. Arrange Visits With the Incarcerated Parents if No Abuse Was Involved
If there was physical abuse involved, it might be impossible to arrange visits to the incarcerated parents. But if there was no issue like that, then arranging regular visits to the prison where the parent is temporarily residing, is a great idea. Or at least ensure that they can contact their incarcerated parents through the phone.
This will allow the child to understand exactly where their parent is, and what they are doing with their daily lives. It will also ensure help with maintaining a relationship with a parent in jail. This is important for when the prison sentence ends and the parent comes back to the family and starts raising the child again - they shouldn't feel like strangers.
5. Have Other Supportive Adults Involved in Raising the Child
If you are feeling overwhelmed or alone in your quest to be an anchor to the child, then don't hesitate in bringing other supportive adults into the fold. It will do the child no good if you become exhausted, burnout, or sick because you are doing it all on your own and it's too much for you.
It doesn't even have to be family members. It could be a teacher that the child likes and respects, or an older cousin.
6. Don’t Forget To Enroll Them Into Skill-building Activities
Children are more resilient than you might imagine, but you have to give them the opportunities to build the skills necessary to grow, develop, and mature. If the child is in a school where there are lots of skill-building activities like sports, clubs, extracurricular activities, summer camps, and more, enroll them in those activities as much as possible.
If the child has a particular interest that they would like to foster, for example, painting, or singing, then support them in this quest by enrolling them in the appropriate classes. Not only will this act like a distraction, but it will also allow them to venture out into the real world, interact with other people, build long-lasting friendships, and develop higher self-esteem.
How To Help a Child Whose Parent Is in Jail - Be There for Them
True empathy involves putting yourself in the person's shoes and understanding them in that manner. What would you want more than anything else if you were all alone in the world and your parents weren't around? It would be as simple as additional support.
And that's how to help a child whose parent is in jail. Be there for them in place of the incarcerated parents. That's the best thing you can do for them.
If you are family or friends of an incarcerated person looking for more information on them, check out Jail Exchange. We have information on every inmate in any jail or prison in the United States and this information is easily accessible through a quick inmate search on our website.