Unfortunately, few resources exist to support young children and families coping with this life-changing circumstance. These children have to deal with the confusion, shame, and anger that accompany the sudden absence of a parent. The 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent share similar experiences, but they don’t often feel comfortable talking about them. Their parents and caregivers don’t often know how to begin the conversation, and at times discourage children from mentioning it to other adults in their life, such as teachers and extended family.
In order to support children with an incarcerated parent and help them persevere through such a challenging experience, Sesame Workshop launched the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration initiative. The bi-lingual (English/Spanish) resources include videos and a storybook for children to help support and comfort them, videos and guides for parents and caregivers to help them find the language to talk about incarceration with their children, and a resource for the incarcerated parent that highlights the importance of communication.
The initiative was specifically developed for families dealing with the challenges of incarceration, but the struggles of children with an incarcerated parent are something people across the country should understand better. In order to raise awareness about the experiences of young children with an incarcerated parent, we created the below animations. Feel free to share them and spread awareness about the experiences of this underserved community of children. If you know children who have an incarcerated parent, please direct their caregivers to these helpful resources.
Children have vivid imaginations. When a parent is suddenly absent, and other adults in the child’s life are going through emotional unrest, it’s easy for a child to believe he or she is responsible for the changes. Children with an incarcerated parent need to be reassured that the changes occurring and their parent’s disappearance are not their fault, and that the adults in their life, both those that are present and that are absent, love and care for them.
Children with an incarcerated parent feel a complex array of emotions. They may feel very sad and disappointed that their parent is away, but very happy when they have the opportunity to make contact with the parent. Adults in these children’s lives often feel uncomfortable discussing the challenges their family is experiencing, which can cause the child to both be confused about what is occurring and see the experience as something they should be ashamed of. It’s important to acknowledge that while the child may have many negative feelings about the situation, his love for his parent doesn’t dissipate merely because they have been incarcerated, and they can still have positive feelings about the parent.
Contact between an incarcerated parent and his or her children is important. Even though a parent is incarcerated, he or she can still have a positive impact on their child’s life. It is important for at-home caregivers to facilitate contact between the child and the incarcerated parent, by way of letters, visits, phone calls and televisits. However, it is also essential to acknowledge that the incarcerated parent may not always respond.
For a number of reasons, children with an incarcerated parent do not always end up in the care of the parent who is not incarcerated. Oftentimes, there is another caregiver – a relative or grandparent – who steps in to care for the child. The caregiver’s role is invaluable – it takes a number of people to support a child emotionally and financially during such trying times. However, switching caregivers and, at times, living spaces, can be a huge change for many children, and it will still take them time to adjust to the new situation.