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As a child, having an incarcerated parent can be scary, emotionally- draining, and cause anxiety and feelings of uncertainty. These feelings and more can surface regardless of whether the child lived with an incarcerated parent or not. It is hard if the child suffered abuse from the incarcerated parent, especially if they were using alcohol or drugs. A child could feel guilty about physical or verbal abuse, believe that they caused the incarceration of their parent(s), or did not do enough to help the parent with their drug or alcohol abuse. A child may also feel relief that the abusive parent is no longer present to abuse them. The protection of children is imperative and very much so when they deal with one or both parents being locked up. This article will discuss 10 Ways To Help And Protect A Child With A Parent In Prison.

Some children can grow up to become co-dependent when the child/parent roles are in reverse, and the child must unfairly take on adult responsibilities due to living in a toxic or dysfunctional household when their parent uses drugs or alcohol. This situation can be exhausting if the responsible parent is in prison, and the child remains with an abusive or drug-addicted parent or caregiver. Situations like these can adversely affect a child’s emotional, mental, physical, and economic well-being and health.





For children, having fathers or mothers in prison can lead to drastic declines in their lives. The effects can vary from child to child and depend on how close a child is with the incarcerated parent. It can feel as though a part of their lives is gone away from them. It could lead to overthinking, depression, self-loathing, and anger outbursts, leaving them susceptible to many other issues.


If a parent is in prison, and the children stay with an irresponsible person, it can have mental and emotional effects. Some effects may include mental disorders, emotional downsides, and physical illness due to neglect or abuse. Such children would lack proper care and monitoring. They could feel alone, and this can lead to many other things.


This situation could lead to forced single fatherhood or motherhood, depending on which parent is in prison. Some parents are not good at parenting. This scenario could affect the child negatively. The only bright side to this is that they do not get abused by that parent anymore if they stay with loving, responsible, and stable caretakers.

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Having a parent in prison could also lead to a decline in the family’s financial status if the incarcerated parent was the breadwinner. Even in cases where the parent in prison was not the breadwinner, expenses could rise. The person in charge or caregiver could become reckless with spending, and this could impact finances. The family’s income would reduce where necessities become unaffordable. Then, they would not be able to live a decent quality of life.


Poverty may set in gradually. This situation can worsen the child's emotional, mental, and physical health and negatively affect their education and schoolwork. In cases like this, it is not unusual to see social services in action. At this point, they may decide to take the children to child protective services, and they may end up in foster care. This overall experience may stick with them forever and affect their adulthood. Kids with such emotional trauma are likely to develop behavioral problems. They may grow up to become violent with criminal tendencies and might end up in prison too.




Children with a parent in prison need all the help, care, and attention they can get. They need help coping with having an incarcerated parent, and they should get as much support and encouragement as possible. Here are 10 ways they can be helped and protected:


1)   First off, you would want to build a personal relationship with the child. Try getting to know the child and let them know you too. If you are not the other parent, you may be their caretaker, (non) custodial guardian, or mentor. Give them someone to look up to and be a positive role model. This act would help shine a bit of light in their life, knowing they can connect and talk with someone. Be aware that this process might not be easy. The child might not be trusting. When you have established a relationship with the child, you should develop the relationship. Make conscious efforts to sustain the relationship. Let them know they can confide in you.


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2)  You can help them maintain their relationship with the incarcerated parent if abuse is not a factor between them and their incarcerated parent. If not, help them understand that having a parent in prison is not the end of their relationship. Come up with simple and cost-effective ways to foster the relationship. Sometimes, child protective services may intervene in child abuse allegations by any parent, caretaker, or non-custodial guardian. Foster care or adoption may become options if they determine that a child is at risk or suffers from abuse or neglect. It is best to make sure that a child is protected, has stability, and is loved and nurtured and not in harm's way by anyone.

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3)   Ensure their safety, wellness, and nutrition. Child-proof your home to prevent injuries. Do not trust them with strangers and irresponsible family and friends. Stay on top of yearly physicals, check-ups, and primary care doctor’s appointments if they become ill. Some kids are already living at or below the poverty level without having incarcerated parents. So, if one parent or both end up in prison, it can jeopardize a child’s living situation and circumstances. Some caretakers, guardians, and non-custodial parents may need government help, such as food stamps and medical coverage, to help care for the child(ren) of incarcerated parents and ensure they are receiving good nutrition.


4)   Keep their educational and recreational goals on point. Keep in touch with their teachers and school administration to make them aware of any issues that affect the child. Sometimes, children may act out when they are dealing with issues that they have no control over. Monitor their behavioral patterns to learn if additional help and intervention is necessary. Help the child with homework and recruit extra help or tutors, if needed. Engage in activities and recreation you enjoy together. Do not let them feel alone.

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5)   Provide emotional and mental assistance to them. When you notice that the kids are beginning to show different behavioral patterns or outbursts, discuss with them getting professional help or therapy. Through support groups, help them meet other kids in the same or similar situations. They will know they are not alone and would find it easier to open up about their feelings. This measure would give them a sense of reassurance.


6)   Guide them through the decision-making processes and help them develop good judgment. Be there with them and for them on important days and events. Let them feel loved and try to fill the void of the incarcerated parent. Do not hesitate to seek outside help from people, support groups, and trusted agencies and resources.


7)   Enlighten them about the criminal justice system, the agencies, and the institutions under it in age-appropriate manners. Help them understand why they have a parent in prison and come to terms with it. Help them understand the rules and processes in place.


8)   Get familiar with the prison visitation process so you can prepare the kids ahead. Let them know what to expect. They could have high expectations and high emotions before the visit. Empathize with them and let them know the feeling is normal. Help them not miss visits and be their backbone before and after visitation.


9)   Provide as much assistance and guidance as you can. Ensure that education, continued learning, and financial knowledge are not lacking. You can give the child informative books to read. Teach them about saving and investing money. Buy them things using positive reinforcement and give them some stipends to buy for themselves if they go shopping with you.


10)   When the time comes, help them prepare for the parent’s re-entry into their lives. Having an incarcerated parent return home to the kids might be difficult and strange to them. Help them adjust if they will not be living with the released parent. If you are a parent, who is not in prison, be open to co-parenting. If you are a caregiver, remain in their lives and check on them regularly.

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It can be extremely stressful for a child who has a parent to go to prison. Several long-term effects can negatively affect a child. These effects include emotional, mental, physical, and financial implications. It is imperative to ensure that children with incarcerated parents end up in stable households. This measure can allow them to receive proper nutrition, education, medical care, guidance, and other things to ensure their well-being.


Keeping children abreast of what it means to have an incarcerated parent is important by giving them knowledge of the criminal justice system and allowing them to visit their incarcerated parent, if possible. Getting the necessary additional help when they have issues that you are unsure of how to handle, like counseling or therapy, is imperative. Preparing them for any re-entry of their incarcerated parent into their lives can help them adjust as well.


For more information on children with incarcerated parents, click the links, below:

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Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents By Stacey Burgess, Tonia Caselman, and Jennifer Carsey 

Parenting From Prison: A Hands-on Guide for Incarcerated Parents By Mr. James M. Birney

Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family when a Loved One is Incarcerated By Becky Birtha