Parenting Before Parole: 15 Ways to Help Children Deal with the Incarceration of a Parent

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In many of the classes I teach, young mothers are frequently co-parenting with partners who have a criminal history or are currently incarcerated. Many even becoming pregnant a second time during brief moments of probation before the father experiences his next brush with the law. What’s even more disconcerting is that African-American children are nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison.  I can’t tell you how many times someone has pulled out their phone with pride to show me a pic of their baby’s father in an orange jumpsuit. Understandably things happen and people are dealt rough hands life, but when a parent goes to prison there’s a whole family that is essentially confined with them.

The numbers don’t lie.  In 2010 a study released by the Pew Research Center’s Economic Mobility Project revealed that the US prison population has more than quadrupled since 1980, from 500,000 to 2.3 million, making the US’s incarceration rate the highest in the world.  This means that at least one of every 28 students in your average sized elementary school classroom has a parent who is incarcerated. It turns out cooties and the calm down corner are the least of these kids’ worries. Statistically speaking, they will come from a family with a significantly lower income than their classmates from a dual income household, they’re more likely to have behavioral problems and can find themselves living in different households over short periods of time.

Parenting can become doubly difficult when a parent is behind bars, but it’s not impossible if parents are willing to work together. As easy as it can be to totally dismiss a co-parent from a child’s life when they become incarcerated, take into consideration that the majority of parents who are incarcerated are in fact able to reunite with their children at some point. In the meantime, having an incarcerated parent can be a confusing and embarrassing situation for both toddlers and teens.  Here are 15 ways to can help your child cope.

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