Kids With Parents In Jail: The Emotional Turmoil

All parents know the emotional turmoil a young child goes through when parents drop him/her off for the first time at daycare or kindergarten--the clinging, the tears, and the need for reassurance that the parent is not leaving for good.

Now imagine the emotional impact on a child who has his/her parents taken from them by a police officer, court, and judge. There is no accurate number of how many kids are faced with having an incarcerated parent or parents. Estimates run the gambit from 1.7 million to 7 million kids. And, there are very few studies regarding the emotional trauma these kids experience.

However, this series is not about estimates, studies, or even what people think about the parents who get themselves into a situation where they are required to do the time for their crime. This series is about the kids who, in fact, become the victims of the crime as well. It is about what they experience when their parents are no longer their caregivers, and how we can help them through the trauma.

When a parent goes to jail, a child feels the loss. It doesn't matter if the parent is good or bad. If the parent is all that the child knows, then he/she feels the loss, a sense of abandonment, anxiety, and even depression over what has occurred. True, in most cases, these kids stay with family members until their parents are released, but they still lose the home they have known, the people they looked to for emotional support, and the routine that made them feel safe. In addition, the family member who takes over their care is often coping with their own emotional trauma. Very few of the kids, or their new caregivers, receive the emotional support they really need. So, what happens to the child?

Simply put--the child suffers. Sometimes the suffering is externalized through behavior issues, bullying, or displays of anger. Sometimes the suffering is internalized, and manifests itself through moodiness, irritability, inability to concentrate, lack of appetite, lack of interest in what is going on around them, and even forms of self mutilation such as cutting. It can even lead to suicide.

So, what is being done to help kids through the emotional turmoil? Next week, I will examine two programs that are reaching out to kids with parents in jail.



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