Caregiver Connection: Should I Encourage My Child’s Connection with their Parent in Jail

parent reading to childAs a caregiver, it can be difficult to determine if your child should maintain a connection when their parent is incarcerated. It can also be challenging to keep that connection going.  

Several studies have shown that maintaining contact between incarcerated parents and their children can help offset the harmful effects of parental incarceration – especially with visits conducted in supportive, safe, and child-friendly environments. For many children, communicating with the parent can:

  • maintain or repair attachment
  • provide opportunities to talk about their feelings
  • help them cope with the grief and loss resulting from separation
  • reassure them that their parent is safe and help correct frightening thoughts 

Maintaining contact is beneficial in most cases. However, there are circumstances where it may not be in the child’s best interest to connect with their parent in jail. Depending on the situation, connecting with their parent in jail, even from afar, may cause undue fear, stress or anxiety for some children. In most cases, you, the caregiver, are in the best position to make this decision on your child’s behalf. 

Ask yourself, “What is in my child’s best interest?”   

Consider your child’s well-being as you make this decision.

Keep children out of the middle of adult conflicts.  You may be frustrated or have hard feelings about the parent in jail, and you may be justified in those feelings. However, it’s important that those feelings do not influence the connection between the child and their parent. Children impacted by incarceration often experience high stress. Exposure to adult conflict adds to this stress. Keeping your feelings about the parent out of this decision is NOT easy and will require self-care and self-compassion for you, the caregiver.   

Do not feel pressured into maintaining the connection.  If connection will not be good for your child’s wellbeing, it’s ok to trust your decision, even if the parent in jail is pushing for it. However, you do not need to make the decision alone. Reach out to a school counsellor, a therapist, or a trusted friend to discuss your thoughts about contact and your child’s wellbeing.

To Help You Decide… 

As you weigh your decision, you may want to consider these questions: 

Did the parent care for or have a positive relationship with the child prior to incarceration? 

Was the child well cared for and protected by the parent? 

Is the parent hoping to reunite with the child following release?  

Is there potential for a positive relationship, even if parent-child unification is unlikely? 

If you answered YES to ANY of these questions, your child would likely benefit from connecting with their parent. Phone calls, letters, and visits are important ways to maintain the parent-child bond. 

Prepare Your Child 

If you decide it is a good idea for your child to connect with their parent, help them prepare. This may include talking through what a visit will be like, helping them write a letter or even preparing what they’d like to discuss in a phone call. What stories or ideas do they want to share? Do they have any questions they’ll want to ask their parent?   

The next post in this series will share ideas for helping children and parents connect through letters, phone calls and visits.  

Expect Emotions

It is important to know that your child may experience many different emotions before, during and after connecting with their parent who is incarcerated. They may feel some positive emotions – joy, relief, hope – and they may also feel some unpleasant emotions – sadness, fear, anger, resentment.

When your child experiences difficult or painful emotions, it does not mean the connection was not valuable. Although these emotions are unpleasant, they are important. You can help your child by letting them know their feelings are normal and talking about ways to cope. For more about managing emotions, visit Strong Feelings., a website with videos from UW-Madison Extension.

Relationships are complicated. Maintaining them takes effort. Yet supporting your child’s relationship with their parent who is incarcerated can have powerful impact their longterm health and wellbeing.


Source: Poehlmann J., Dallaire D., Loper A., Shear L. Children’s contact with their incarcerated parents: Research findings and recommendations. Am. Psychol. 2010;65:575–598. doi: 10.1037/a0020279.