Parental incarceration puts children in their own prison
Robert T Muller Ph.D.
The wildly popular television drama Breaking Bad followed the evolution of a high school chemistry teacher and father turned drug kingpin. The series came to an explosive end in the Fall of 2013; shows like this often end when the protagonist-criminal’s story ends.
But from a mental health standpoint, just as this occurs new stories begin, particularly for the family.
When parents are arrested or convicted their children face many challenges, one of the most important being the disruption of parent-child attachment. Research shows that parent-child attachment directly affects cognitive and behavioural development in children, and this disruption can lead to social and behavioural problems later in life.
When a parent goes to prison, young children often develop emotional responses such as sadness, fear and guilt as a reaction to the parent’s incarceration.
These emotional reactions can turn into severe behavioural problems, triggering conflicts between the child and others. Many children of incarcerated parents develop feelings of anger and aggression, leading to failed friendships in school. Some may also become depressed and anxious, bringing academic and social challenges.
The child’s attachment to caregivers is important in the development of what psychologists call social cognition (the study of how our thoughts and perceptions of others affect how we think, feel and interact in our everyday life). Our earliest thoughts about others are learned through our parents. Children raised without a sufficient parent-child interaction may lose this important experience. The child may have a difficult time socially, often when they approach adolescence.
The media tend to overlook children of criminals. In 2005, it was estimated that more than 2.3 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison. How can children in this position be helped?
A two-step process, adapted by education professor Glen Palm of St. Cloud State University and the Inside-Out Connections Project, was developed to decrease these children’s odds of developing negative behaviours.
Step 1: Understanding and Awareness
When a parent is incarcerated, the child’s remaining caregivers often don’t know if or how they should explain the parent’s absence to the child. Once a child understands the situation, they are more likely to adapt to the changes in their life in a positive way.
Clinical psychologist Deonisha Thigpen’s book When a Parent Goes to Prison helps explain incarceration to a younger audience. It defines what breaking the law is, presents easy-to-understand definitions regarding the justice system, and even provides support to children by explaining that they are not the only one who is experiencing this situation.
And popular children’s television shows like Sesame Street have developed episodes for children with incarcerated parents. They provide a visual explanation that helps to explain incarceration and how children can eventually explain it to their peers.
Step 2: Visiting the Incarcerated Parent
Once a child understands incarceration and what it means for them, they may be able to visit their parent in prison. Prison visitations are often portrayed on television and in film, but reality often differs.
Visitors may have to wait an extended period of time before seeing an inmate, which can be challenging when visiting with young children. Sometimes families of inmates wait for hours, to discover the visiting request has been denied. When a visit is granted, most correctional facilities have large visiting rooms shared between many inmates and visitors, limiting close parent-child interaction.
A more viable prison visitation program for nurturing a parent-child bond is filial play therapy. It is only an option for inmates who are not sex offenders and who have not committed any serious violations at their institution. Once accepted into the program, they are taught how to create a safe and open environment with their child. Then they meet with their child for one hour a week in a private setting, utilizing these new skills.
Play therapist, Garry Landreth, of the University of North Texas, believes that filial play therapy improves a child’s self-worth and self-esteem, despite the parent’s incarceration. After a 10-week study, Landreth found that the children began to see themselves as more capable and valuable individuals.
Of course it’s fair to expect convicted criminals to pay for their crimes. But no child should have to suffer for their parent’s mistakes by being left to grow up on their own.
And when those we incarcerate leave children behind, we’d be wise to consider the kind of future we want for the next generation. Perhaps a future that gives a shot at something better…for their sake, and for ours.