I'll Take Questions I am Not Prepared to Answer on the Spot for $800, Alex

I know how you all just love School Psychology Jeopardy, so here you go with the “So Unprepared For This Question” category:

Scene: Recess

Kindergarten kid #1: My daddy’s in jail!

Kinder kid #2: My daddy used to be in jail.

Kinder kid #3: My daddy said mommy went to Wal-Mart for a long time. But it was really jail.

Kinder kid #4: Dr. B, what’s jail?

Me: [As whole kinder class is now listening] Erm, uh…jail is um.. [I then remember one of the most awesome teachers I know responding to this question last year, and channel her] Well, jail is like time-out for grown ups. When they make a mistake they go to jail and learn how to not make that mistake again.

Wowza. Talk about interesting playground talk, right?

As many of you know, I work in a community where it is common for the poppits I work with to have a parent in jail. It is always a difficult discussion to have with kids, but just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the conversation. Sometimes, teachers, family members, and school psychologists need a little help with finding the right words. The following is an excerpt from the book “What Will Happen to Me?” and I think it does a nice job of outlining how to answer these difficult questions.

Ten Question Often Asked By Children Whose Parents Are In Prison
By Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz,
Author of “What Will Happen To Me?”

Children need time to adjust to the separation caused by having a parent in prison. But it takes more than time. As we have heard in their voices, children also need to make sense of what has happened to them and to their parent or parents. Because of this, they have many questions.

Some of the questions they ask are straightforward. But sometimes their questions come out indirectly or in their challenging behavior. Incarcerated parents, as well as caregivers of children or other adults in their lives, often have to answer their uncomfortable questions.

Children who are present when a parent is arrested, especially young children, are usually not told where their parents are being taken, when they will be coming home, or why they have to go away. As time goes on, the children have even more questions.

Our childhood experiences shape much of our adult lives. Children who live with these kinds of questions, many of which are not answered to their satisfaction, experience trauma as a result. Frequently that leads to their general mistrust of authority, especially the legal system. Not having their questions answered can also lead children to blame themselves for their parents’ absence or to believe that they are destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

Here are questions that children whose parents are incarcerated often ask, along with suggestions about how to answer them. We will address some of the questions more fully in later sections of the book.

1) Where is my Mom or Dad?
Parents and caregivers often believe it is best to protect children by not telling them where their mothers or fathers really are. Children may be told that their parents are working in another state, going to school, or serving in the military. Sometimes children are told that their parents are ill and had to go away for special treatment.

Sooner or later children will realize the truth and know they have been lied to. This tends to hurt their relationship with the persons who have told them the untrue stories and can lead to feelings of distrust that affect their other relationships as well.

While the adult who hides painful reality does so believing it is in the best interest of the child, such an action (or inaction) creates a family secret that results in children feeling ashamed. Most childhood experts advise that children be told the truth.

2) When is he or she coming home?
The outcome and schedule of a parent’s arrest and/or imprisonment is often uncertain. However, it is important to keep children up-to-date about what parents or caregivers do know. Children need to have concrete information they can deal with, even if it is, “We don’t know what will happen yet.”

3) Why is she or he in jail or prison?
Sometimes an innocent person is arrested. But when a parent has done wrong, it is important that this wrongdoing is acknowledged. Children need to know that there are consequences when people do things that are against the law or harmful to others.

At the same time, they also need to be reassured that even if someone sometimes does something wrong, it doesn’t mean that s/he is necessarily a bad person. While a child’s parent may be serving the consequences for something wrong s/he did, the parent is still worthy of love and capable of loving.

A child can learn to trust a caregiver who is honest about what a parent has done wrong. This practice of honesty allows the child to believe other things that the caregiver tells her or him as they progress together on this journey.

4) Can I talk to my mom or dad?
Jails and prisons have specific and often constraining rules about prisoners talking on the phone to their loved ones. Phone calls from prison are often quite expensive and restricted in length. Many times a parent does not have enough money to call home because it is so expensive.

When phone calls are difficult, letters can be especially important. Although young children may find it hard to express themselves through words, they may find it more meaningful to make drawings. As Stacy Bouchet, now an adult, suggests in her reflections, children often treasure the notes and letters they receive from their parents, as she did from her father.

5) When can I see my mom or dad?
It is helpful to explain to children that prisons have specific times for visiting, and their caretakers will get that information so that they can see their loved ones. If a parent is incarcerated at a distance, the child should be prepared for seeing his or her mother or father infrequently.

Some children are angry and do not want to see their parents, or at least they’re ambivalent about the possibility. In general, though, it seems important for children to visit their parents as regularly as possible.

Before the first visit, they should be prepared for the circumstances of the visit. The caregiver should explain the security around the prison. The children should also know that there will be limits upon where they can visit and what they can do with their parents.

Most children want to know what their parent’s life is like in prison. They may imagine frightening scenarios. Giving them a sense of mundane details of everyday life in prison can be helpful. If the child is interested, a caregiver can encourage the parent to describe his or her cell or room and tell what a normal day is like.

6) Who is going to take care of me?
Children in this situation often feel insecure. It is important to let children know who will be caring for them. If there is uncertainty about their living arrangements, children may need to be told that, but they also need to be reassured that plans for their care are being made and that they will not be abandoned. As much as possible, they need stability in their living situations and their relationships.

7) Do my parents still love me?
When children are separated from their parents, they often worry about whether their parents love and care for them. Most children need reassurance that they are loved by their parents no matter where the children happen to be living and with whom. They also value other loving relationships in their lives, but they still want to know about their parents’ interest and love.

8) Is this my fault?
Children often blame themselves for being separated from their parents or even for their parents’ misbehavior. They may imagine that if they had behaved better their parents would still be with them. They need reassurance on three fronts: that what happened to their loved one is not their fault, that it happened because that person did something wrong or harmful, and that this does not mean that their parent is a bad person.

9) Why do I feel so sad and angry?
Sadness and anger are children’s common responses to a parent’s incarceration. But most children do not understand their feelings or the origins of them. It is helpful for them to be reassured that their feelings are normal. Ideally, they can be encouraged to talk about their feelings of sadness or anger. If they cannot talk to their immediate caregivers such as their grandparents, they can be invited to talk to school counselors or social workers or even friends. Children often find it helpful to know other children in similar situations because they can understand each other’s feelings. Children who find it hard to articulate their feelings can be encouraged to express them through their drawings or other art work.

10) Can I do something to help?
Children typically feel helpless and responsible. They need to know that their loved ones usually appreciate letters and pictures. They can be encouraged to send them as often as they want to.

The above is an excerpt from the book “What Will Happen To Me?” by Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy. Reprinted from What Will Happen to Me?. © by Good Books (www.GoodBooks.com). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Comments on I'll Take Questions I am Not Prepared to Answer on the Spot for $800, Alex

  1. Dr. Tonya says:

    Dr. B, your posts are often wise and insightful and this is no exception. Thanks for posting this. I agree – children need to know the truth about what happened to their parents if they are incarcerated. Other children also should be aware that their friend's parents may be away in jail because of their choices/behavior. You are right, this is a prime discussion to highlight that choices have consequences, sometimes severe. How you described jail as a "time out for grown ups" was right on – I am going to steal that.

    Thanks for creating such a positive and supportive community!

  2. teachermum says:

    It was so interesting to read your post to gain perspective and insight into what other professionals in the education world need to deal with. Although I do not work with children who have parents in jail I think the insights I have gained from reading your article will help me deal with children who are going through other crises.
    Thanks for your post.

  3. ashes says:

    Wowza! So true! Thanks for the insights… It reminded me of a situation I got myself into once. Not really thinking through a situation, I was giving the CBRS to a 3rd grader… ya know, the one with all the 'substance' questions? I just wasn't sure what to say when she asks, "Miss Ashlee, what does getting high mean?" Oops!

  4. Jen says:

    I feel sorry for children whose parents are in jail. Thanks that they are Americans, their country can provide for their needs.

  5. It would not be right if I did not comment on this one. I agree, it is so important for us to answer these hard questions with these kiddos. When we do this we allow them to encode and process this new information in a healthy way. Also, research has shown that the more interaction these kids get with their incarcerated parents the better, depending on the accommodations that are made to make the experience more pleasant. Thanks Dr. B!

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