In our organization, we hear countless stories from the families we serve...
They talk of the harmful effects prison has had on the children of prisoners. It is tempting to lose heart and give up. Your kids have many hurdles to overcome. This is true. When a parent goes to prison, children suffer the most significant loss. Their childhoods are disrupted, and their worlds are turned upside down. Research has shown that children with parents in prison are more likely to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviors than kids whose parents are not in the system. But does that mean that your kids are doomed to fail? By no means!
I could cite dozens of articles and research briefs that identify the difficulties children of prisoners face. I am not going to do that. Instead, I will devote this blog to share how kids can thrive despite their parents being in prison. Just because their parent is in prison does NOT mean that your kids will end up in prison someday, too. Having a parent in prison does not enslave children to a life of hardship, poverty, and crime. Far from it! Your kids have an opportunity to develop resiliency that will help them become successful as adults. The secret to their success is your ability to help them face everything and recover. Yes, I said it, and I meant it. Children who experience hardships can use those hardships as an advantage if they have the proper support and guidance.
I know you have heard the adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is true. Resiliency, fortitude, and grit develop during hardships. Those powerful attributes do not just sprout up on their own, though. Surely, they must be planted and nurtured. Then, this is where you come in. Your children need to have your permission to grieve the loss of the life they had. You need to tell them it is OK to mourn losing their parent to the prison system. It is heartbreaking to lose contact with a loved one. Additionally, your kids need to know that the pain they feel is normal and acceptable.
"They will overcome this adversity and you will all surely get through this together."
Help your children navigate through the normal cycle of grief- shock, denial, anger, and acceptance (check out my other blogs on these stages.) As you move with them through each step in this cycle, they need to know that this is an event and not a lifestyle. Communicate your expectations. They will overcome this adversity and you will all surely get through this together. You will need to be consistent in affirming them by helping them see a successful future.
Consequently, the key is to find ways to engage your children in activating hope inside them for a better future. The amount of courage and strength you model will elevate your children to lift their heads and see the path in front of them. If you leave their future to chance, they will likely flounder and only see the limitations they face now. They will forget how to dream and will end up on the road to becoming another sad statistic. The task in front of you may seem daunting, but I promise you that you are up for the challenge! Just take one day at a time.
I will share some secrets to help your children become successful despite having their dad in prison. These are secrets I have learned along my 30-year journey. WOW. 30 years just hit me! Ron was in prison for 15 years, and we have continued our work with families impacted by incarceration for nearly 15 years after his release.
Here are my top 5 secrets:
- Listen more than you talk. Let your kids know that they are HEARD by you. Listening fosters security and a sense of belonging essential to their healing.
- Encourage your children to talk about having a parent in prison. Help them face everything and recover. Also, help them set boundaries around when they share their personal lives and who they share it with. Always expect your children to tell the truth and to never lie about their circumstances. Encourage your kids to say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” if they are not ready. This is an appropriate response if they do not want to share their story with someone.
- Expose them to healthy families. Do not shy away from family events or community events where you know other families will attend. Instead, seek out those activities, so your kids can see healthy, intact families and watch how they interact. Help them process the pain of missing their own father and see that healthy families exist. This pain plants the seed of hope. This hope will establish what you are working toward.
- Take your kids to church. Faith is the most important predictor of success. Teach your children about God and help them develop their own faith that will not fail them when things go wrong. Not only will your children build the confidence needed to move mountains, but they will also make invaluable connections with others who share their beliefs.
- Get them involved. Find out what your child(ren) love and get them connected. If they love baseball, get them on a team. If they love art, find an art club. Whatever their passion is, join with them in finding ways to unleash and express that passion. This will help them focus on the good things in their lives, make new friendships, and connect them to more positive adult role models.
Prison is not a death sentence to your child’s future! You can help your children become healthy, productive, and thriving adults.
I am rooting for you!