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Top Ten Things You Should Know: Kids with an Incarcerated Parent

Cover of Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson, Illustrated by James E. Ransome, shows a girl hugging her father.A lot of us will serve youth who have a parent who is or has been incarcerated. Sometimes we know, and sometimes we don’t. This list of tips from the Avary Project can help guide us toward being more appropriately responsive to these kids. With their permission, the entire post is copied here:

  1. The circumstances of a parent’s arrest are irrelevant – don’t EVER ask. Asking about why a parent is serving time in jail can make the child feel uncomfortable or judged and can even damage trust, even if this is not your intention.  When discussing family oriented situations, be respectful by letting the child lead the interaction. If a conversation does develop, focus as much as possible on the child’s emotional experience of not having mom or dad around, not the details of what happened.
  2. All kids need one-on-one attention. When a family is dealing with turmoil at home, regular one-on-one support and attention can become rare.  They will need to get, or look to get it at school or from other types of mentoring relationships. Please keep in mind that acting out often coincides with change at home (a parent is arrested, a parent is released, an expected change of release date) so be mindful of these influential factors and offer additional support/attention when you can.
  3. Stress at home can look like other things (i.e., learning disabilities, ADHD) at school. When there is violence, food insecurity, and traumatic, unstable circumstances happening in the home, a child may come to school or other organized activities and be unable to focus because they are hungry, tired, or anxious.
  4. Whenever possible – talk to the parents or the caregiver. Don’t assume that the caregiver-parent is incapable, not concerned, or is uninvolved. Begin a conversation with a parent from a place of concern and care for the child and be aware not to judge.
  5. Listen. Most children who have a parent in prison don’t have someone they can talk to about what they are experiencing. They may not easily share because they have been told by family members that they will be judged if people know what is happening in their home. Just listening can help the kids feel they are not alone.  Remember to listen from a place of caring and keep any negative personal reaction to yourself.
  6. Use books. Feeling isolated is one of the most difficult things for a child of an incarcerated parent. Books in the classroom about these types of families can be a non-threatening way to let children know they are not alone. Click here for a list of books.
  7. Be sensitive about word choices and making generalizations. Use language that is inclusive of extended families such as those with other types of caregivers and family members who are not living in the home. Ask open questions like “who is picking you up today?” instead of “is your mom picking you up today?” to minimize the possibility of discomfort for the child.
  8. Remember different families handle disclosure differently. Families often provide different scenarios about why an incarcerated family member is not living in the home.  It’s common for the caregiver at home to tell a child that “Dad’s at work”, “Dad’s at college”, “Mom’s on vacation.” In some cases, details are left out because they are too painful and/or difficult to explain because of the child’s age and sometimes families tell a child that the mom or dad has died.
  9. Having the “Right to Pass” builds trust.  Kids who have experienced trauma are living in a minefield, simple straightforward questions for most children (“where’s your mom?” “what did you do this weekend?”) can be loaded and painful. At Project Avary we teach our kids that they have the “right to pass.” This means building an agreement, about answering any question that might be uncomfortable, into discussions helps children feel more comfortable and safe engaging.
  10. Never speak ill of mom or dad. A child may tell you about a way in which a parent has failed them, and sometimes that is hard to hear, but no matter how badly that parent has behaved, they are still loved as the child’s mother or father. Putting mom or dad down, no matter what the circumstance, is painful for the child to hear and reduces their trust of you. Let the child make their own judgments about their life and what has happened to them.

Originally posted here, and see also their Bill of Rights.

Mary Dubbs is a Community Embedded Librarian for Hennepin County Libraries

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.


  1. Pingback: Serving Children in Crisis - ALSC Blog

  2. Melanie

    This is such an important topic! Millions of children are affected by their parent’s incarceration. Thank you for posting and talking about it. An article I just read, talks about this great nonprofit who gives a voice to these children and unites with them to let them know they are not alone. It is wonderful!

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