Top Ten Things You Should Know

With more than 15 years working with children of incarcerated parents, many programs, teachers, and youth workers have asked us for advice and suggestions to help them better serve this population. The following is a list developed with Avary program graduates and staff that give adults some guidance.

  1. The circumstances of a parent’s arrest are irrelevant – don’t EVER ask. Asking about why a parent is serving time in jail can make the child feel uncomfortable or judged and can even damage trust, even if this is not your intention.  When discussing family oriented situations, be respectful by letting the child lead the interaction. If a conversation does develop, focus as much as possible on the child’s emotional experience of not having mom or dad around, not the details of what happened.
  2. All kids need one-on-one attention. When a family is dealing with turmoil at home, regular one-on-one support and attention can become rare.  They will need to get, or look to get it at school or from other types of mentoring relationships. Please keep in mind that acting out often coincides with change at home (a parent is arrested, a parent is released, an expected change of release date) so be mindful of these influential factors and offer additional support/attention when you can. 
  3. Stress at home can look like other things (i.e., learning disabilities, ADHD) at school. When there is violence, food insecurity, and traumatic, unstable circumstances happening in the home, a child may come to school or other organized activities and be unable to focus because they are hungry, tired or anxious.
  4. Whenever possible – talk to the parents or the caregiver. Don’t assume that the caregiver-parent is incapable, not concerned or is uninvolved. Begin a conversation with a parent from a place of concern and care for the child and be aware not to judge.
  5. Listen. Most children who have a parent in prison don’t have someone they can talk to about what they are experiencing. They may not easily share because they have been told by family members that they will be judged if people know what is happening in their home. Just listening can help the kids feel they are not alone.  Remember to listen from a place of caring and keep any negative personal reaction to yourself.
  6. Use books. Feeling isolated is one of the most difficult things for a child of an incarcerated parent. Books in the classroom about these types of families can be a non-threatening way to let children know they are not alone. Click here for a list of books.
  7. Be sensitive about word choices and making generalizations. Use language that is inclusive of extended families such as those with other types of caregivers and family members who are not living in the home. Ask open questions like “who is picking you up today?” instead of “is your mom picking you up today?” to minimize the possibility of discomfort for the child.
  8. Remember different families handle disclosure differently. Families often provide different scenarios about why an incarcerated family member is not living in the home.  It’s common for the caregiver at home to tell a child that “Dad’s at work”, “Dad’s at college”, “Mom’s on vacation.” In some cases, details are left out because they are too painful and/or difficult to explain because of the child’s age and sometimes families tell a child that the mom or dad has died.  
  9. Having the “Right to Pass” builds trust.  Kids who have experienced trauma are living in a minefield, simple straightforward questions for most children ("where’s your mom?" "what did you do this weekend?") can be loaded and painful. At Project Avary we teach our kids that they have the “right to pass.” This means building an agreement, about answering any question that might be uncomfortable, into discussions helps children feel more comfortable and safe engaging.
  10. Never speak ill of mom or dad. A child may tell you about a way in which a parent has failed them, and sometimes that is hard to hear, but no matter how badly that parent has behaved, they are still loved as the child’s mother or father. Putting mom or dad down, no matter what the circumstance, is painful for the child to hear and reduces their trust of you. Let the child make their own judgments about their life and what has happened to them.