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How to Cope When Parents Go to Prison

by Elizabeth (Lisa)Thompson

In 2007, about 1.7 million children dealt with a parent in prison, which translated to one in 43 American children, according to information provided by the Sentencing Project. More than 70 percent of these were children of color; about half were under 10 years of age. Some are now raised by a single parent; others reside with a grandparent, other parent or foster care. Whatever the housing situations, these children grieve and suffer loss. However, you can take concrete action that will help you cope if your parents go to prison.

Accept your feelings. You might deal with a variety of mixed and ambivalent emotions -- sadness over missing your parent; anger at your parent who no longer lives with you; concern over what will happen to your parent or you while he is in prison; and continued love and loneliness. Realize these are all common emotions. This is a stressful time for you, so express emotions appropriately. Understand your parents are in prison for their choices and not for anything you did. Your parents still love you and miss you.

Journal. Writing your feelings in a private diary can help you process your emotions. You can see how you are working through the situation as you review your journal entries. Keep your journal private. Talking about your feelings helps too, but keep that separate from your writing.

Seek out a support system. Talk to your family first of all, if possible, or those who live with you. They will help you cope with the emotions you are dealing with. Ask your caregivers important questions, like the length of time your parents will be in custody and what living arrangements will be after your parents' release. Even if your caregiver does not know, she will help you find the answers. School counselors have professional training in dealing with challenging issues such as parents in prison. If you do not think that talking through the situation with any of these people helps, ask to talk to a professional counselor. Watch for warning signs of depression. Spiritual guidance can also help you during this time.

Exercise. Physical activity works as well as medication does to relieve depression and boost your mood, according to information published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999.

Visit your parents if you want to or can. However, your parents might not want you to see them in prison. In that case, honor their wishes or work out a solution. In any case, write letters or talk on the phone if at all possible.

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