Parenting and Incarceration

“There are times as a parent when you realize that your job is not to be the parent you always imagined you’d be, the parent you always wished you had. Your job is to be the parent your child needs, given the particulars of his or her own life and nature.” Ayelet Waldman

The particulars in your child’s life are changed. It all changed the minute your loved one started serving their prison sentence. We know that the person left at home has a ton on their plate and must remain centered and focused. There are many things you can do when it comes to parenting when your partner is incarcerated.

Questions You May Face

At some point, your child may want to know why their parent is away. Of course, you need to consider their age, but if they are at an age where you feel they can handle such a conversation, then it should happen. 

The guiding factor you should follow is to be age-appropriate and honest. It would help if you also let them know that their parent is responsible and did something bad, and because of that, they had to leave. This is a good place to remind them that when we do something wrong, that doesn’t mean we are bad people. 

The Child’s Emotions

You don’t want your child to think that they did something wrong. This can often occur. You should encourage them to talk about what you have just told them. You can let them know you would like to hear their thoughts about what you have said to them. It is always good to remind them that their missing parent loves them very much and still can have a relationship with them.

Beyond the conversation you have perhaps had with your child, you also need to monitor their behavior. So many things have changed in their life, and they are feeling the effects. They are noticing your changes; for instance, perhaps you are working more now to make ends meet. Your budget, in general, may now be different. They will notice this and worry. They may worry about losing you since you are their main protector and provider at this point. 

It is all very frightening to a child, and you need to pay attention to that as a parent. According to, you may see warning signs of distress in your child. “Having a parent or close relative in prison may lead to a change in your child’s behavior, such as hyperactivity, anxiety, becoming withdrawn and shy or depression. Children affected by having a parent in prison are more likely to experience mental health issues and have lower self-esteem.”

Children Have to Deal with Other Children

It is sad to think that some of the most challenging problems are caused by other children. Anyone labeled as different is well aware of how cruel other kids can be, especially in school. Having a parent in prison is often labeled as different. 

Your child may feel embarrassment, shame, or anger, and other kids may be the cause of those feelings through teasing. As a parent, you should reach out to the school and explain your situation to offer the child support. The more support the child has, the better their ability to combat negative attacks.

Continue with Life and Routine

You need to keep going without your incarcerated partner. If you have routines, you can still meet with your child. Make sure you keep doing it. Perhaps you routinely go to church, sports practices, watch television together, have mealtimes, read, or play outside. It is healthy to continue these activities. 

According to the Trauma and Grief Network, “Children and young people feel safe when they can follow their normal, everyday routines.”

You are the primary support as a parent. Their questions, actions, and needs are observable. Your ability to respond is what makes you their number one asset during this time.

Useful Books

Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson and James Ransome

Mama Loves me From Away by Pat Brisson

Wish you were here teens write about Parents in Prison Autumn Spanne Editor, Nora McCarthy Editor, Laura Longhine Editor

An Inmates Daughter by Jan Walker