If you’re a caregiver in a family with a parent in jail, then you know how difficult it is for the rest of the family to cope with the situation. Children are the worst affected because they depend on others for everything, including physical and mental support. Caregivers have to work extra hard to keep the family together. You will have to stay back at work longer, maybe shift to a cheaper neighborhood, and manage your own feelings and disappointment while being there for those that depend on you. You are the bridge between children and a parent who is in prison. It is up to you to keep the family together. Children remember their parents and wish for the security and comfort that comes from being in a well-adjusted family.
Here’s what you can do to try and foster a healthy relationship between a jailed parent and the children left behind.
- Keep the incarcerated parent informed about developments in the child’s life. It could be signing up for music classes, scoring well in the exams, going on a picnic, purchasing a new pair of shoes…these ensure that the thread of connectivity and bonding remains intact. It tells the parent that he or she is always going to be a part of family. This is essential to maintain connectivity.
- Respect the jailed parent – You may harbor feelings of betrayal and resentment against the parent but you must maintain decorum in your conversations about the parent with the children and with the parent in front of the children. Speak the truth gently so as to inculcate in impressionable children a sense of right and wrong.
- Get the parent and child to talk – If there’s a scheduled telephone talk with the parent in jail, ensure that children are present to talk to the adult and have something to talk about. Check with the prison authorities about being able to send items from home, such as paintings made by kids, photos, and such things.
- Let the children know – The children must be made aware of how things stand and where the parent is. They’ll adjust better to the situation by learning the facts at home instead of getting to hear about the truth from outside. There’s no point in telling them that a parent is away on a tour. Gently tell them about the incarceration. You have their trust. You could lose it by feeding them a story. Tell them that we are all accountable for what we do. And that even if the parent is away from them, it does not mean that they love the children any less.
- Prison visits can help – If the child wishes to visit the parent in prison and if it can be arranged, then do so. A face-to-face and a heart-to-heart between parent and child can erase misconceptions and misgivings, and strengthen the bonds of love that are essential to keeping a family together. Separations after the visit is over are always poignant, you must be mentally prepared to ensure a gentle goodbye between parent and ward. If possible, travel in a group with families of other prisoners. You can save money this way and also form a support system for each other.
- Prison programs – Prison programs are a great way to foster bonding between parent and child. Check with the prison about programs that encourage parents and children to meet. It could be something as simple as a parent sending a recorded voice message to the children or the children being allowed a day of activity with the parent. Keeping in touch is all important, it helps children experience a release. Their feelings and emotions find expression in the company of their parent in jail. They learn and grow.
- Plan with the parent – Plan with the incarcerated parent about life after release from prison. Set goals that both of you’ll can work towards achieving. Encourage the parent to enroll for classes inside prison so as to acquire or build on skills that will be useful in life outside prison. The prisoner can attend religion classes, take personality development courses, and check out what Prison Fellowship offers. Such activities will make post-prison adjustments easy for all involved.
- Keep yourself healthy – You have to work on your own health. Your mental and physical wellbeing is essential for ensuring a smooth functioning family in the absence of a parent. Children are going to look up to you for answers. Practice yoga, stay positive, eat healthy food, and stay around positive people.
- Reach out for help – It is important to allow the community to support you. You don’t have to do this alone. Juggling work, children, and other responsibilities can be a drain physically and emotionally. Research community programs offered by colleges, religious organizations, public health services, and support groups. You can enroll the children for after-school activities to keep them engaged while you’re at work. You can enroll the kids at mentoring schools where adults befriend and coach children.
One needs to adopt a holistic approach to ensure that children with incarcerated parents are brought up in a healthy environment. It is possible and can be done.