The adolescent years are filled with hormones, angst and drama. When a teen discovers that one of their parents is in jail, ail of their difficulties go into overdrive. A teenager will usually worry about what is happening to the jailed parent and how they can help. The following tips can help ease your teen’s mind.
Be honest: Let them know what crime their parent has been charged with. It won’t be hard for them to find out on their own, and the last thing you need right now is a breakdown in trust between you. Don’t go into a lot of detail, just share the charge and say you don’t know all the details yet, which is the truth, because until it gets to court, you really don’t know.
Assure them that the parent is fine: Let your teens know their parent has clothing, personal hygiene items and that there is a commissary account so snacks can be purchased. There will be food, medical care if needed and visitation. Ask if they have any questions and give them honest answers. When they ask: “Is dad starving in there? How will he eat?” You answer: “The jail is feeding him. They don’t have his favorite foods, but he is being fed and we can make his favorite dinner when he comes home.”
Arrange for calls: It can be expensive, but even one call a week will help your teens believe that their parent is surviving the jail experience. Be sure to discuss with your jailed partner the importance of reassuring the teens during the calls, so he or she doesn’t share things that will only worry them, like seeing a fight in the POD that morning.
Encourage writing: Give each teen a pad of paper, a box of envelopes, the jail address and some stamps. Tell them they are free to write but instruct them not to discuss anything in the letter about the parent’s case or their opinion of the case, because the jail staff reads the jail mail. Encourage them to talk to their parent in the letters just like they were at home, about school, work, goals and what they did that day. Writing to the parent gives the teens a sense that they are being supportive.
Final thoughts: Teenagers are moving from worrying about themselves to worrying about others and believing they have the ability to change the world. The best way to handle them when a parent goes to jail is with truthfulness and respect, while also assuring them that you are in charge and that they can trust you to take care of things on the home front.
Sesame Street: Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration