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Supporting the child whose parent is imprisoned: when is professional help needed?

The child whose parent is in prison is traumatised by separation, confused with parent’s behaviour and stigmatised due to feeling ashamed for the parent’s illegal activity. Reactions the child manifests can be easily recognised. Identification with the imprisoned parent, changes in future orientations, constant thinking about the parent, worry about what is going to happen to the parent, about life without the parent and about insecure future. The child experiences flashbacks of the parent’s arrest, humiliation, shame, anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, as well as low self-esteem, loneliness and problems in everyday functioning.

Consequences of this situation may be recognised in later life. How the imprisonment of the parent will impact the child, depends on the child’s age at the moment of separation, duration of the separation, health and relationships within the family and previous separation experience. It also depends on the type of the parent’s law violation, the availability of support and the degree of stigmatisation of that law violation in the community.

Although it is not easy to give a single answer for all children and families, the prevailing belief is that most children benefit from maintaining contact with the imprisoned parent. This potential benefit mostly depends on the support the child gets communicating with that parent (writing letters, preparing for a visit, etc.) and on the clarification and coping with the situation the child is encountering. Talking about the potential benefit, we do not mean situations when parents are imprisoned for illegal activity against the child’s well-being. Since in such cases it is most frequently some form of parental abuse and neglect, contacts with the parent who is the source of traumatisation are not recommended or, they may be recommended in special circumstances after the child, the parent and the child’s environment have been professionally evaluated.

There are several efficient ways of supporting the child whose parent is imprisoned, both in the family and at school. However, adults are most interested in whether such a child needs professional help. Sometimes counselling the parent about appropriate communication with the child and in front of the child, possible child’s difficulties may be alleviated. In any case, it is important to watch for behaviours which would indicate a need for professional support. In so doing, it is important to know when the child’s difficulties started, how often adults notice them, how intense these are and if they interfere with the child’s everyday activities.

When adults who live with the child need help and support, receiving it can alleviate the adjustment to the new situation for the whole family. Although open and honest communication with the child whose parent is imprisoned is the best, such communication is most often the hardest one for adults.

When providing support, adults need most support, counselling and understanding for their feelings, too.

Evaluation of whether the child needs professional help, should assess:

- if the child inappropriately reacts to separation from the imprisoned parent (too strong reactions or a total lack of anxiety),

- if the child is seriously worried for the imprisoned parent and/or the persons with whom s/he lives,

- if the child has been exposed to other traumatic events or loses, apart from the separation from the parent,

- if the environment shows patience and understanding for the child’s reactions,

- child’s personality characteristics or family characteristics which may complicate open communication (e.g.: being restrained in expressing one’s feelings),

- child’s feelings if there is no conclusive evidence that the imprisoned parent is guilty and the family, including the child, feels additional strain and frustration due to the experience of injustice,

- if the child can, even after a longer period of time, accept the separation,

- if the child, after a longer period of time, still has symptoms which indicate changes in experiencing and behaviour (e.g.: s/he is exceptionally isolated, has dark thoughts, becomes aggressive or auto aggressive…).

The issue of providing support for the child whose parent is imprisoned is of crucial importance. The above indicators, as answers to the frequently asked question about the need of professional help, may facilitate adult carers’ support of the child.

Written by: Bruna Profaca, psychologist