Experiencing the incarceration of a loved one is overwhelming. It is normal for children to have complicated emotions during this time. They may feel anger, sadness, shame, or relief. They may feel all or none of these things. As a caregiver, it can be challenging to deal with a child’s emotions, especially when you are managing your own feelings.
It is important that children feel comfortable sharing feelings and coping with them in healthy ways. When you see your child struggling with difficult feelings, pay attention and use this as an opportunity to listen and connect. You might say something like, “It looks like you’re feeling upset. Can you tell me about that?”
Emotion coaching is one strategy you can use to help children process their feelings. You can remember it through
LEAPS, which stands for Label, Empathize And Problem-Solve
L is for Label. Helping children find words for their feelings is empowering. Research shows that when kids can name their feelings, they can handle them better. You can help children identify emotions they are feeling, instead of telling them how they should feel.
You might say: “It looks like you’re feeling frustrated that you can’t see your mom right now.” Or “It sounds like you’re really disappointed that Dad’s not here to watch you play soccer.” You can label emotions that feel good too. “You seem joyful today! Tell me about that.”
E is for Empathize. Empathizing with your child’s feelings shows that you understand. If children don’t think you understand what they experience, they may try to show you (loudly) just how upset they are. This can sometimes lead to negative behaviors. Children need to know you understand before they can move on to problem-solving.
You might say, “I’d feel that way too if that happened to me.” or “Yes, it can be hard to sleep when you are missing your mom.” or “When I was young, I didn’t see my dad for a long time. I remember feeling really sad. It’s sad when you can’t see your dad.”
PS Stands for Problem-Solve If there’s a problem to address, encourage your child to think of suggestions. This sends the message that your child is capable of solving problems, which builds confidence! When your child comes up with a solution, it is more likely to work for them—and for you. If the solution is not appropriate, you can guide them to one that is.
You can work with your child to think of items or activities that offer comfort in times of high stress, sadness or other intense emotions. (“What do you think would help you feel better right now?”) If your child can’t think of a good solution, you can suggest an option or two and let them choose. (“Do you think it would help to carry a photo of Mom?” “Would a nightlight help you feel safe?”) You can also encourage coping skills like drawing or writing when your child doesn’t want to talk.
Emotion coaching doesn’t mean all behaviors are acceptable. We still need to guide children toward positive actions. (“It’s ok to feel angry. It’s not ok to hit. Can you think of something to do or say next time you feel this way?”)
The goal of this series is to offer you support in your role as a caregiver of a child impacted by incarceration. Here are additional resources for you and your family.
Try: Talking About Feelings Coloring Sheet from Sesame Street