Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents with Trauma-Informed Care

Leo Howard III


When a parent is incarcerated, it can be a very difficult situation for the entire family, especially the children. Both parents may feel powerless in supporting their children emotionally, and teaching them healthy ways to express their emotions can be challenging. This experience can be extremely overwhelming and stressful for everyone involved. 

An estimated 1 out of 6 youth in Minnesota have an incarcerated or previously incarcerated parent, making parental incarceration one of the most frequently reported Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) for this population. However, with the right support, this difficult experience can be transformed into an opportunity for growth and resilience. Greater Twin Cities United Way’s 80x3: Resilient from the Start initiative is pioneering this support through trauma-informed child care. 80x3’s mission is to ensure all young children, their families, and caregivers have the support and resources to overcome childhood trauma and thrive.

One of the primary sources of stress for children who have parents who are incarcerated is the feeling of losing an active or partially engaged parent in their lives. This can lead to feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and confusion. Addressing this separation and its impact on their attachment and relationship with their parents is crucial. Most children do not have the emotional vocabulary or capacity to express the effects of such separation. Instead, they may display their emotions through their behavior, such as aggression, social isolation, or becoming overly clingy to their custodial parent. Additionally, if the child witnessed the arrest of their parent, it may cause further psychological distress and can lead to trauma, feelings of mistrust, and a lack of safety. These traumatic experiences that may occur in a young child’s life do not have to dictate their future. Early intervention and trauma-informed caregiving can lead to long-lasting benefits in adulthood, including improved physical and mental health outcomes, higher educational attainment, and higher wages. Every child deserves an opportunity to live a long and healthy life.

According to the article "Children of Incarcerated Parents: Challenges and Resiliency, in Their Own Words" by Nesmith. A. and Ruhland E. (2008), research indicates that children need healthy outlets to cope with tough times and feelings. Engaging in activities can help these children build confidence by learning new skills, providing an outlet for their anger or frustration, and creating a focus beyond the stress of their home life. Additionally, participating in activities can introduce them to new opportunities for making friends and finding a supportive community that appreciates them for who they are. 

Kamyala (Kamy) Howard, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and advisory board member of Children of Incarcerated Caregivers (CIC), emphasizes the importance of understanding the factors contributing to resilience in families affected by incarceration. CIC, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the best interests of children with parents in prison or involved in the criminal legal system, provides support by offering supplies and transportation for children to attend summer camp. The organization also creates spaces for families to come together, discuss, and alleviate stressors. These efforts aim to foster resilience and provide support for these families. “As someone actively working towards helping families affected by incarceration, I need to understand the factors contributing to resilience and how we can provide these opportunities,” said Kamy.

To support children and families, 80x3 provides comprehensive training, Communities of Practice, and resources to teachers and caregivers. This empowers them to create trauma-informed and nurturing environments where children can thrive. No single person or organization can address the impact of childhood trauma. It requires a sustained commitment and concerted effort from all in the early childhood education community.

Through collaboration, 80x3 ensures that children facing the stress of parental incarceration receive the support they need to develop resilience and achieve positive outcomes. By addressing trauma and providing stable, supportive relationships, we all can help children build a brighter future.

About the Author

Leo Howard is a Program Manager for 80×3: Resilient from the Start. His background includes a wealth of knowledge in the juvenile justice field, adjunct professor, curriculum and content creator, clinical facilitator and program developer. Leo has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Minnesota Duluth and a master’s degree from The University of Minnesota, in Communication and Youth Development Leadership.

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