Speaking the Unspeakable: Helping Children of Incarcerated Parents

August 2, 2013 | Markita Mays, Clinical Social Worker, University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital's Child Trauma Research Program


Four-year-old Jenae entered the playroom with her mother and immediately filled the space. “Daddy’s back in jail,” she said, with an affectively disconnected smile plastered on her face. Mom laughed nervously and tried to ignore the bluntness of their family’s truth.

Four-year-old Jenae entered the playroom with her mother and immediately filled the space. “Daddy’s back in jail,” she said, with an affectively disconnected smile plastered on her face. Mom laughed nervously and tried to ignore the bluntness of their family’s truth.

As I (clinician) walked into the home and settled in for our usual dyadic session, mom whispered to me while pointing to 3-year-old son, Jackson. “You know what he said the other day? ‘My daddy’s in jail.’” She looked surprised, unclear of how to hold that information. I whispered back to her, “Was he there when dad was arrested?” She shook her head yes, so I asked, “Why are we whispering?”

These scenarios are common when meeting with families who are impacted by incarceration. My work with families consists of speaking directly to difficult things—traumatic experiences that impact the early years of attachment and the relationships children need to grow, develop, and internalize a sense of meaning in the world. Incarceration—while too often normalized for children in urban, low-income neighborhoods—is a difficult topic of conversation for parents and their children. Even though children may be present for the arrest, hear adult conversations around them about what happened to their parent, and/or simply experience a parent being there one day and gone the next for unexplained periods of time, the idea of giving words, making meaning, labeling parental incarceration for a child is taboo, avoided, and/or dismissed. It triggers a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and indefiniteness for parents/caregivers on the outside.

Parents can seek support from trained service providers when they are having a hard time telling their children something important about what is going on in their family and/or when children show an unusual change in behavior.

Trained in Child-Parent Psychotherapy, a dyadic relationship-based treatment for children up to age 5 and their caregivers, I give words to the unspeakable. This involves careful assessment of the child’s development, family history, family dynamics, and building a collaborative partnership with the parent/caregiver on the outside. I work with the parent to find comfortable words and phrases that can be used outside of the therapy room whenever the child is asking questions and/or is have emotional or behavioral issues. Also in collaboration with the parent, I assess how or if it is possible to maintain a relationship in some form with the incarcerated parent. Treatment goals for Child-Parent Psychotherapy include:

  1. Creating a trauma narrative to explicitly articulate or implicitly share through play what the parent and child have experienced, how it makes them feel individually, and what emotions/feelings they share as a result of that experience;
  2. Helping parents make meaning of the behaviors/symptoms that often come as a result of parental incarceration: separation anxiety, intense or prolonged crying, unresponsiveness to soothing, difficulty with sleep or eating, regression in toileting or language, and/or aggression. Because young children are not equipped to express their feelings using language, interpretation and/or giving meaning to disorganized feelings and inexplicable responses and behaviors increases self-understanding and interpersonal coherence between parent and child;
  3. Providing parental emotional support and empathic communication to the family’s circumstance so that the parent/caregiver can be the secure base for containing, soothing, and/or redirecting a child’s emotional state or behaviors. Because parents/caregivers on the outside are the most important factor in mitigating the impact of parental incarceration, it is important to increase the parent/caregiver’s reflective capacity and support the parent in being emotionally attuned and available to read their children’s cues and respond to their needs.

The topic of incarceration often isolates families from seeking services and/or support from fear of being stigmatized or shamed. Parent/caregivers need to remember their right to confidentiality when talking to trained service providers (doctors, therapists, counselors, etc.) and that they have the power and control to manage how service providers help: It is a collaborative relationship.

Markita Mays, MSW, is a clinical social worker currently on staff with the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital’s Child Trauma Research Program, where she received two years of clinical training as a post-master’s fellow. She also received training with the Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland. Markita’s five years of training and provision of Child-Parent Psychotherapy has primarily been done in urban community settings using home visiting models. She is especially interested in children of incarcerated parents and cultural issues involving early childhood mental health and family/community empowerment.