How to help your Child Stay Connected when one Parent is in Prison

This is heartbreaking no matter how anyone tries to ease the children’s pain. Separation is nothing new to many families. As it happens in every war, and certainly including this one, young children face similar pain when fathers or mothers march off for a year or more. No matter what the reason, how can children understand why loving parents would suddenly leave them?

Fortunately, my own wartime departures happened when I was young and before my children came along. However, one of my most vivid and sad memories that still haunts me is when I had to say goodbye to my three-year-old son as I left on one of my frequent business trips. I can still see him as he stood outside looking forelorn as I drove away. And I can still hear his plea, “Why is my friend Daddy going away?” To my son, his dad, who was also his best friend, was abandoning him.

While the wartime and business parent-child separations are often painful for young children, at least other family members and friends can band together to explain the reasons for the parents’ need to leave. There is no shame involved. When it happens in military families, they can prepare the children for the reasons why daddy or mommy must to go far away to fight. There is the traditional pride and patriotism that can make the pain a bit easier to bear, and the children will know other families are dealing with the same hardships.

However, when the separation is not for the normal business and military reasons, it is much more difficult for children to face all the pain and shame that happens when a parent goes to prison. The younger children can be placated and reassured without explaining the entire truth, but from kindergarten age on up, it is a much more difficult task. If the children can accept the truth and wants to keep contact with the jailed parents, then other family members must decide how much, if any, contact the children should have.

In some drastic situations, such a court order or necessary family decision, it may be more beneficial to cut off permanently all contact between the children and parents. In the worst scenario, the murder of the mother or other close family member may be the reason for imprisonment. Then, contact by the convicted parent and the child should be cut off to protect the child from possible emotional and/or physical harm. In that case or others where parents are sentenced to long prison terms, and the parents have no possibility of getting out of prison before the child reaches adulthood, total separation may be the most practical course of action.

If all of those worst case scenarios are not present, and the incarcerated parents are serving relatively short terms for non-capital crimes, families may decide to keep the children in contact. Of course, the welfare and mental health of the children should be paramount in any decision to keep or deny regular contact. Depending on the family’s finances and the distance from the prison, a visit schedule can be set up for face-to-face sessions. In some prisons, depending on security regulations, visits are permitted where the parent can be allowed to sit with, hold and play with the children during visits. This, when possible, is important for the children to experience the parent’s touch and voice, especially if the incarcerated parent is the mother who raised the child from infanthood.

Frequent phone calls between parent and child can help ease the separation. Additionally, with all the advances in technology available today, and if permitted, the parent in jail may have access to a DVD player. Then, the family may send regular videos of family activities and on-camera messages from the children. Also, if permitted by prison rules, the prisoner can record videos on DVDs about prison life to be watched by the children and other family members at home.

The decision to allow children to establish and maintain contact with imprisoned parents is a difficult one for family members who must consider the effect on the children. Unless there is a legal reason to prevent the contact, they must also realize and respect the rights of the parents.