6 Tips for Children With Parents In Prison

One in 28 children in the United States has a parent that is currently incarcerated (1).

Sadly, a number of these children wind up in foster care.  A quarter of the foster children that have been in my care had a parent that was incarcerated at the time of placement.  To some children, going to jail is a regular event that just means you need to go bail them out. And other children feel shame and even guilt when a parent goes to prison.

6 tips for when a child has a parent in prison:

1. Help the child feel secure in his surroundings with reliable people and activities.

Surround the child with people and places that he knows.  Don’t overwhelm the child with new places and people at first.

2. Have a predictable schedule and let him know what will happen during the day.

Children do best when they know what to expect.  “Dad will be taking you to school, then I will pick you up from school for a doctor appointment. After that we will stop by the grocery store before going home for dinner.

3. Encourage your child to talk about his feelings.

Ask “How are you feeling?” I love this touching Sesame Street video when Muppet Murray talks to child Nylo about his mom’s incarceration. Grab a Kleenex…

4. Let the child know that it’s okay to have big feelings.

I had a family member with an incarcerated parent, and when this child got in trouble, the words were heartbreaking: “I’m bad, just like my dad!

Shame, guilt, sadness, and anger are such big emotions for a child to handle. Let them know that it’s okay to feel that way, but that feelings change:  “I know that you’re having some really big feelings right now, and that’s okay…feelings never last forever.  They always change.  So even though right now, your big, big feelings are making you {sad}, they won’t last forever.  I promise.” (2)


5. Talk honestly with the child about his parent’s incarceration.

Honesty builds trust which is what a child needs during this time. “Daddy is in jail because he broke a grown-up rule called a law.

6. Let the child know that the incarceration is not his fault.

Some children from hard places take the world on their shoulders and are full of worry and guilt about things they have no control.  Let them know that it’s not their fault that their parent was the one that made a bad choice.

Sesame Street has released a new initiative  for children with parents in prison.  For more tips, activities and videos, check out Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.


What has been your experience with children whose parents are incarcerated?