Silent Grief: Children with Incarcerated Parents

A Silent Grief

Children with Incarcerated Parents 

By Jan Schoenherr, MA, LPC, ACS

Jan offers a supervision group for new counselors, please call (269) 353-7607 for more details.

            In the course of two week’s time, I had a mother contact me about her concerns about her son’s withdrawal after his dad was sentenced to prison and I had another child burst into tears in his classroom, telling his teacher about witnessing the arrest of his mother the previous evening.  That was when I first began to think about the possibility that I needed to start a group for this population of students.  As therapists, most of us have groups for children dealing with other issues involving grief and loss – the death of a family member, divorce, relocation – but, if you are like me, you may not have thought about this population before.  I decided to ask other professionals if they knew of any other such children and I was surprised to find that there were enough referrals to warrant the need for two groups.

            Leon (2000) studied children who have experienced extreme stressors and found that the stress experienced by children who have an incarcerated parent is similar to the stress caused by the death of a family member, change of custody in a divorce situation, and trauma such as a fire.  However, perhaps because of the social stigma regarding this situation, there is less support in place to help such children.  This is also supported by a broad research review that summarized what is known of children of incarcerated parents.  Simmons (2000) looked at a number of small-scale studies which showed that the “effects of parental arrest and incarceration on a child’s development are profound.”  Without positive intervention, these children are at high risk of school failure, delinquency and intergenerational incarceration. 

            In early childhood (ages 2-6), we know that the developmental tasks are a sense of autonomy, independence and initiative.  When there is a factor such as parent-child separation and trauma, children may experience anxiety, developmental regression, acute traumatic stress and survivor guilt.  When children reach middle childhood (ages 7-10) and need to complete the developmental tasks of developing a sense of industry and ability to work productively, the factors of parent-child separation and enduring trauma can cause acute traumatic stress, guilt, shame, fear, and reactive behaviors.  Some of the behaviors found in these studies were sadness, withdrawal, low self-esteem, aggression, difficulty sleeping, concentration problems, decline in school performance, and flashbacks of their parent’s arrest. (Simmons, 2000)

            According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report published in August 2000 by the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 336,300 U.S. households with minor children were affected by the incarceration of a resident parent and 58% of the minor children were under 10 years of age.  The average age of these children was 8 years old. (Bender, 2003)  As helping professions, we are in the unique position of being able to step up to support the majority of these children.

            How do we accomplish this?  Group therapy can be a powerful step in the right direction.  However, because of the climate of secrecy which often surrounds this situation in children’s lives, it is extremely important to establish rapport and trust, not only with the child, but with the custodial parent or caregiver. (Bender, 2003)  I call these parents or caregivers and talk with them about the group and/or meet with them in person to discuss what we will be doing before asking them to sign permission for their child to be in such a group.  I’m careful about the name we give the group, so that it doesn’t identify the child as having an incarcerated parent and helps maintain confidentiality.  I also offer myself as a support to the custodial parent, empathizing with them as they find themselves parenting in a tough situation.  The parents and custodial grandparents who have come in to talk with me and partnered with me in this way have not only helped themselves and their children, but have become some of my best teachers in understanding what this is like for families.

Forming your group:

            For most groups, the goals are to improve understanding, attack irrational beliefs, increase self-acceptance, and learn decision-making, problem-solving and coping strategies.  The goals for children with incarcerated parents are no different.  Here is an outline of how I’ve structured group sessions.

Establish trust, understand confidentiality, share our stories: 

            The children in this particular group seem to understand the need for “keeping what is said inside this room” more than any other I’ve worked with.  They seem glad to know of others who are in a similar situation as theirs and are happy to have a safe place to talk about it.  I don’t press children to share who don’t want to, but often they share quite a bit, given time.  A good icebreaker here is to have students draw a picture of the person in their family who is incarcerated and ask them to tell us as much as they want to about that person.  Sometimes I also get pictures of the arrest, and this gives me an opening to talk about the feelings they have about having witnessed this.  There have been instances where I’ve learned from the custodial parent some details of a specific child’s situation that the child still doesn’t feel comfortable talking about in the group, but that the child later asks to come to talk to me about privately.  I let the children know that I’m available for that and that it’s okay to keep some things more private.

Improve understanding:

            Children need accurate information about prison, jail and visitation.  However, it is important to protect younger children from any frightening details.  It is also important to address how television does not give us accurate information.  I’ve learned a lot about this from my conversations with custodial parents and from the children themselves.  It was amazing to me when one of the students in this group talked another child through what it would be like to go to the prison for visitation and how that differed from a jail visitation.  He said, “When you go to the prison to see your mom, you won’t have to talk to her through a window like at the jail.  They don’t let you take anything in there with you except some change to buy stuff from the vending machines.  You can get up and buy the stuff, but your mom will have to stay seated.  The good thing about it, though, is you will be able to give her a hug.”

Attack irrational beliefs:

            Some children fear that they won’t be taken care of without the incarcerated parent, especially when that parent is the mother.  This is because “approximately two-thirds of incarcerated mothers were the primary caregiver for at least one child before they were arrested.” (Simmons, 2000) These children are most often sent to live with grandparents, but some live with other relatives or are in foster care.  This is in contrast to children of incarcerated fathers.  Only half of the fathers lived with their children before their arrest, and most of the children of incarcerated fathers (nearly 90%) continue to live with their mothers.  Some children may also feel guilty for being glad the incarcerated parent isn’t in the home because the home was a scary place with that parent there.  Some children fear that they will be sent to jail or think it is their fault or blame another family member for their parent being sent to jail.  Some families “run down” or “glorify” the person in jail or prison. This can cause the child to take extreme, irrational positions about law enforcement and/or have complicated, mixed-up feelings about loving someone who is so “bad”.  It is important to combat these thoughts with simple, honest facts and to validate feelings.

Increase self-acceptance:

            It is important to “be aware that a child’s self-esteem is closely interwoven with his/her image of his/her parents.  What he/she hears about them will greatly affect the way the child feels about him/herself as an offspring of those parents.” (Bender, 2003)

            Children need to learn that rules are made for reasons and that there are consequences to everyone when rules are broken.  Breaking rules does not mean that you are a “bad person” but that you made a bad choice.  Children can learn to make their own choices.  They are not their parents.  Parents can learn from the consequences of their choices, just as children can, and can make better choices in the future.  I knew that one of the students in this group understood this point when he told me, “I think that my dad is learning to be a better man and when he gets better at making good choices, the parole board will see that and he will be able to come home.”

Learn decision-making, problem-solving and coping strategies:

            We spend a lot of time in this group talking about laws being society’s rules and the importance of those rules.  We talk about school rules and the consequences for breaking them as well.  We talk about choices in behavior that can get us into trouble and brainstorm alternate behavior choices.  We also talk about all the many different feelings they have and identify the people that they can trust with their feelings.

Some excellent resources for using with such a group are:

My Daddy Is in Jail by Janet M. Bender, M.Ed.

Help for Kids!  Understanding Your Feelings about Having a Parent in Prison or Jail by Carole Gesme, M.A., CCDP with consultation from Michele Kopfmann.

            Two years later, after her son had been through two rounds of this group, the mother who had originally contacted me with concerns about her son’s withdrawal after his dad’s sentencing to prison, sent me a note thanking me for having the group.  She said she’d been afraid this experience was going to ruin his life, but, with the help of the group, it had made him stronger.  Isn’t that what we hope to teach all our children when faced with adversity?


Bender, J. M. (2003).  My daddy is in jail:  Story, discussion guide, & small 

       group activities for  grades K-5.  Chapin, SC:  Youth Light, Inc.

Gesme, C. & Kopfmann, M. (1993).  Help for kids! Understanding your 

       feelings about having a parent in prison or jail.  Minneapolis, MN:  Pine


Leon, A.  (2000).  Counseling children who have experienced extreme

       stressors.  Washington, DC:  Paper presented at the National Research

       Conference of Head Start.

Simmons, C.W. (2000).  Children of incarcerated parents.  California

       Research Bureau Note, 7 (n.2).