Finding Hope in the Silence: Navigating Conversations with Kids of Incarcerated Loved Ones
In order to understand how to talk with children of incarcerated parents, one must recognize their stages of development. We will look at Piaget’s stages of cognitive development to explain how to engage kiddos in age-appropriate conversations.
For children birth to age two years old (sensorimotor), they develop through their five senses, have working memory, and develop object permanence. Thus, they begin to understand their parent exists even if they do not see them. In this age range, the conversations are not about discussing why the parent is absent but more about soothing the child. It is crucial to comfort children in this age range by reassuring them, “Mommy is not here right now, but you are loved.” If communication is possible and safe, try setting up video visits and regular visits. Allow your child the ability to talk and be held by the incarcerated person, but do not force them to. If that is not possible, show the child pictures of their incarcerated parent. Validate their feelings. Provide a lot of cuddles and reassurance.
Children ages two through seven (pre-operations) lack logic and engage in pretend play, language development, symbolic meaning, and egocentrism. Along with the advice above and if it is permitted and safe to do so, set up phone calls with the incarcerated parent. If that is not possible, children can write letters and draw pictures, engage in pretend play, and imagine what it would be like to talk to their incarcerated parent. It is pertinent for children at this age to understand they are not the cause of their parent’s incarceration. This concept is important, since egocentrism means they tend to focus on themselves, which is appropriate for their age. When kids do not have answers, they are left to draw their own conclusions that can involve blaming themselves for their parent’s action. Also, around age four, children begin to ask many questions. Answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner. Age-inappropriate information may sound like,
Child: “Where is Daddy?”
Adult: “Well, your Daddy is accused of violently murdering someone by (explicit details). Now he is in jail.”
Instead, try, “Daddy is accused of hurting someone, and he is in jail.”
Around ages seven through eleven (concrete operations), children sort objects in a certain order, develop conservation and inductive reasoning, understand they can reverse an action by doing the opposite, are less egocentric, and understand others’ point of view. Thus, conversations about cause and effect in relation to their parent’s incarceration are appropriate, along with the advice mentioned above. You can talk with them about how the choices their incarcerated parent made led them to incarceration. While children become less egocentric in this age range, reassurance that it is not the child’s fault that their parent is imprisoned is still necessary and appropriate.
Inappropriate communication may sound like, “Wow, you will end up just like your mom with all of that attitude.”
Appropriate communication may sound like, “I see you have some big feelings, especially since your mom went to jail. I wonder if talking about them would help.” You can still write letters, make phone calls, set up video calls and visits if it is possible and safe to do so.
Children ages 12 and older (formal operations) think more rationally about hypothetical events and their own identity and morality, become more compassionate, do deductive reasoning, and prioritize. Since they can begin to draw their own conclusions on what is morally right and wrong, keep the communication lines open as they have questions. You may start conversations with them about what they know about their incarcerated parent’s situation, and present facts. Allow them to share their feelings and grapple with their feelings; they may be conflicted. The closer they are to 18 years old, the more open you can be, but remember to respect the boundaries that the incarcerated parent is still their parent. Also around late adolescence, they may understand other factors that led to their parent’s incarceration, such as mental health, addiction, etc. It is okay to answer their question in an age-appropriate manner without bashing the parent or sharing too much information.
Examples of inappropriate language: “You are right! Your dad has screwed up his whole life. I wasn’t surprised when he went to prison the last time.”
Appropriate language: “I can hear you say how frustrated you are that your dad has been in and out prison. I know he has missed out on a lot of major events.”
Letters, video visits, phone calls, and regular visits are great ways to connect, if possible.
A few things to remember:
Kids remember and understand way more than we give them credit for!
Give the child choice in his connection to his incarcerated parent. Provide him with the options.
All the child’s feelings toward their incarcerated parent – both good and bad – are valid.
It is natural and completely okay to show your emotions so that kids know they can do the same, as long as you do not make the child responsible for them or become emotionally reactive and destructive. If you are struggling with this, seek therapy.
Never allow a child to have contact with person who has harmed her without child protective services and therapeutic assessment and evaluation. If instructed by court-ordered officials to do so, work through it with the proper social worker and therapist (i.e., not on your own).
We don’t have to choose between survivors of crime and kids of incarcerated parents. Both are innocent, and both deserve our support.
While this blog is generic to apply to a multitude of different scenarios, for advice for your specific situation, consult a therapist.
For more information, see the parent letter in Where Daddy Lives book.
Alicia Nortje, Ph. D. (2023, March 9). Piaget’s stages: 4 stages of cognitive development & theory. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/piaget-stages-theory/#google_vignette
YouTube. (2018, August 1). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhcgYgx7aAA