There are more than 721,000 parents living behind bars. Where are the children of these prison inmates? It depends. When Dad is in prison, most children live with Mom. When Mom is in prison, many children live with grandparents and other relatives.
Are you raising grandchildren who have a parent in prison? Your grandchildren are dealing with a lot right now, aren't they? Their needs may seem overwhelming to you. Don't despair. There are steps that you can take to help your grandchildren cope with what is happening in their lives.
What to Tell the Child
When a parent goes to prison, children want to know what happened. It's always best to tell the truth. If you make up a story to protect your grandchildren, it could backfire. The story may not make sense to the children. Kids are smart. They'll know you're hiding something from them — and they may imagine that it's something far worse than what really happened. This could make them nervous or afraid. Or, the grandchildren may hear the real story from friends in the neighborhood. Then they will feel that you have betrayed them.
Remember: Children of incarcerated parents need stability in their lives. They also need to know that they can trust the people around them. Don't let white lies damage the trust your grandchildren have in you.
How much should you tell? Give young children a simple explanation of what happened. Older children can handle the complete story. Most kids will understand what you mean when you say that the parent did something wrong and is being punished.
Not everyone in the family will agree on what to say to youngsters. You will have to work this out with other family members. Help the family come to a decision that is best for the children.
Dealing with Difficult Emotions
Your grandchildren will probably feel many conflicting emotions when their parent goes to jail. They may feel angry and ashamed that the parent has done bad things. But, at the same time, they could remain very loyal to the parent. They may be afraid that they will never see the parent again. They could fear that you may leave them too.
What can you do to help? Let your grandchildren know that you love them and that you're not going anywhere. Listen when they want to talk about their parent. Let them know that it's "okay" to feel the way they do — even if their feelings are different from your feelings. A child may miss his or her parent and want to see the parent often. On the other hand, you may be angry at the parent and want no contact. You and your grandchild don't have to feel the same things. But you must respect the child's feelings. Don't try to change those feelings.
Helping your grandchildren stay in touch with their parent helps everyone. The children will feel loved and connected to their family. They'll have a chance to make peace with what the parent has done. This will help them adjust more easily when the parent comes home. Staying in touch could even help the parent turn his or her life around. Inmates with strong family ties usually do better after they leave prison.
Your grandchildren can talk with an incarcerated parent on the telephone. Or they can swap letters with the parent. Help the children keep a list of things they want to tell Mom or Dad. This will make it easier to write letters or make phone calls when the time comes. Mail cards on special holidays. Send report cards and other school papers, too. Remind the parent to send cards on the children's birthdays.
Think about taking the children to visit the parent in prison. This might not be an easy thing to do. The prison might be far away from where you live. Getting there may cost money. Plus, the prison may not be very child-friendly. Try to go anyway. Studies show that children do better at home if they can visit a parent in jail. Kids usually think that prison conditions are much worse then they really are. Seeing a parent in prison can set their minds at ease.
Several organizations sponsor programs that make it easier for children to visit their parents in prison. Find out if the prison has these programs.
If the Child Doesn't Want Contact
Some children don't want to have any contact with a parent who is in jail. There could be many reasons for this. Maybe the child didn't get along with the parent before the arrest. The child may not like going to the prison. Older kids may think prison visits are boring.
Don't force the child to visit. But don't give up too easily, either. Try to gently convince the child to stay in touch by phone or mail. Not having any luck? Don't bring up the subject for a few weeks. It may help if the parent tries to reach out to the child.
Has the child been abused by a parent? Then don't pressure the child to visit, call or write. Instead, get counseling for the child.
Sometimes children act differently after a parent goes to jail. They may cry more often. They may withdraw. They may get into fights. Are you concerned about these changes? Then speak with your health care professional. Be sure to tell that professional about your family situation. This will help him or her assess the child. Does the doctor feel that your grandchild could benefit from counseling? Ask if the child can see someone who has experience with inmate parents and their children.
This article originally appeared on aarp.com.
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