Tools & Guides

Tip Sheet for Prison/Jail Staff and Volunteers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages).

Prison and jail staff and volunteers play an important role in facilitating visits and helping make visits a positive experience for children with incarcerated parents. Visits from family members can help promote strong family ties and have been shown to decrease recidivism.1 For children, visits are an important way to maintain the relationship with their incarcerated parent, which can have important implications on a child’s behavior and mental health.2 Staff and volunteers are the first and last individuals that children see in the facility; their support of family visits can set an important tone that parent-child relationships are valued and important.

Common Toxic Stress of Children of Incarcerated Parents

Many children with incarcerated parents have had multiple adverse experiences in their lifetime, which may or may not be related to their parent’s incarceration. For example, when looking at the children of incarcerated parents in Arkansas, it was reported that 40 percent of children had been present at the time of their parent’s arrest and 27 percent of arrests were instances where a weapon was drawn.3 These experiences can be very traumatic for children and may cause them to feel uncomfortable around law enforcement.

In addition, children with incarcerated parents may be struggling with other challenging experiences, such as financial hardship resulting from a primary provider becoming incarcerated4 and families having to pay for expensive legal fees.5 Many have been exposed to violence in their homes and in their communities6 and have lived with a parent with a mental illness or history of substance abuse.7

Children with incarcerated parents may also experience social and institutional stigma. They may feel shame or embarrassment about their parent’s incarceration and worry about being judged for what their parents did. In addition to trauma they might be feeling lonely, isolated, scared, angry, or depressed, and they might be navigating difficult family circumstances, sometimes with very little support.

How Can Prison Staff and Volunteers Help to Create a Positive Environment for Family Visitations?

A child’s visits with an incarcerated parent can be a positive experience and can help to build or maintain a positive parent-child relationship. However, visits can also be stressful for children and may cause them to feel afraid or sad about the separation when the visit is over.8 Prison staff and volunteers are in a unique position to help ease these feelings and prevent any further traumatization by taking some quick steps to set a positive tone for children visiting their parents.

Before the Visit

  • Children often have to travel long distances to see their parents and can understandably be very disappointed if they are turned away. To help ensure the maximum number of children are able to visit, it is helpful if staff make sure all caregivers bringing children to visit are informed about visitation rules, such as the dress code and the maximum number of children allowed to visit. It is best to have this information conveyed to visitors prior to arriving at the facility, either on a facility website, in an email, or over the phone. If incarcerated parents are also informed of the rules, they can share this information with visitors before they arrive. Clearly communicating the rules — and applying them consistently — will reduce visitors’ and incarcerated parents’ confusion and frustration.
  • Visitors who are coming for the first time or are not able to visit very often are usually unfamiliar with the visiting process and can feel very anxious not knowing what will happen next. Having a staff member or volunteer calmly explain the steps (e.g. “You will wait here and then you will go through additional security.”) to caregivers and children can decrease the anxiety they may be feeling about the process.
  • Security procedures can be intimidating for children. Make these spaces as friendly as possible by clearly explaining the procedures and having procedures posted. Offering children a small reward, such as a sticker or even a high-five for successfully going through security, can help set the stage for a positive visit and help the child see staff and volunteers as approachable.
  • Children can also be made to feel more comfortable during what can be a stressful time by having staff and volunteers acknowledge them, smile, and talk to them in a positive tone. Acknowledging something positive about the child (e.g., “I really like your hair” or “You are doing a great job waiting!”) can help set a welcoming tone.
  • Long wait times can cause children to become irritable, which can cause caregivers to become stressed. They may have a hard time sitting still or controlling their bodies. Whenever possible, decreasing the time a child has to wait before visiting their parent and making the waiting room child-friendly by having books or other activities available may help reduce children’s anxiety, thereby reducing caregivers’ stress.

During the Visit

  • Non-contact visits can be stressful for children because they can see, but not touch their parent, which is not typically the way parents and children interact (especially for young children). Allowing for as much contact as possible can ease this stress and can be an important way for children to feel connected to their parents.
  • Children may be easily distracted by other visitors and in some cases the behavior or language of other visitors may not be appropriate for children. Give family visitors as much privacy as possible, without compromising safety and security.
  • Children may be intimidated very easily in this setting, especially if they have had negative interactions with police officers in the past. If a child breaks a rule during a visit, use a calm voice and age-appropriate language to help the child understand the rule.
  • Visits are often time-limited. Help prepare children and caregivers for the end of the visit by making sure they know how long the visits are and reminding them a few minutes before the visit ends. This will provide children with an opportunity to say goodbye to their parent in a meaningful way.

Related Resources for Further Reading

Children of Incarcerated Parents. Children of Incarcerated Parents Federal Website.

From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Supporting Children and Families of Prisoners. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Bureau.

Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations. National Institute of Corrections.


1 Shanahan, R. & Villalobos Agudelo, S. (2012). The Family and Recidivism. American Jails, pp 17-24.
2 The Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents. (2013). Promoting Social and Emotional Well-Being for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
3 Harm, N. J. & Phillips, S. D. (1998). Helping children cope with the trauma of parental arrest. Interdisciplinary Report on At Risk Children and Families, 1, pp 35-36.
4 La Vigne, N., et al. (2008). Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Urban Institute.
5 Hairston, C. F. (2003). Prisoners and Their Families: parenting issues during incarceration. Prisoners Once Removed, pp 259-279.
6 Uchida, C. D., Swatt, M., & Solomon, S. E. (2012). Exposure to violence among children of inmates: a research agenda. Silver Spring, MD: Justice & Security Strategies.
7 Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Reports: Parents in prison and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
8 Arditti, J. A. (2003). Locked doors and glass walls: Family visiting at a local jail. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 8, pp 115-138.

Tip Sheet for Incarcerated Parents: Planning for a Visit from Your Child/Children

Download the PDF (3 pages).

Visitation can be an important and meaningful experience for incarcerated parents and their children, but it can also be a source of stress and anxiety when parents’ or children’s expectations do not align with what ends up happening. Many aspects of visitation are outside of the control of an incarcerated parent, but there are things you can do to anticipate problems and reduce stress to make visitation a positive and beneficial experience for everyone involved. Below are things to consider when planning for a visit from your child. If you do not know the answer to a question, think about who in your facility you can ask for an answer such as other incarcerated parents, volunteers, or facility staff. Even if you cannot find the answer to a particular question, if you think it could affect the visit make sure your child’s caregiver is aware of the issue.

Things to Consider Before the Visit

  • What are the rules? It can be very disappointing for everyone when families are turned away and not allowed to visit because they did not understand the visiting rules and procedures of the facility. To help prevent this from happening, check with the staff and let your family know the rules on:
    • What can visitors wear? Many facilities prohibit revealing clothing, sweatshirts with hoods, or spandex-type clothing. Open toed shoes may also be a problem.
    • What can visitors bring to a visit? Some facilities allow caregivers with infants to bring a bottle, a change of clothes, and a diaper; and they may allow a child to bring a toy or a book; other facilities do not. Can a child bring a gift? Many facilities do not allow visitors to bring in gifts or other items including cash for their loved one. It can be terribly disappointing for a child to plan to give their parent a drawing or small gift only to be told at security that it is not allowed.
    • How many visitors are allowed at one time? Facilities can be very strict on the maximum number of visitors and count infants towards this number. If only two people are allowed in and there are three young children, make sure your visitor knows that he/she may need someone to watch the other children while you are visiting. How can you divide visiting time evenly between your children? Is there a waiting area for additional guests to stay in during the visit if not everyone is allowed in at one time?
    • Who needs to be on the visitation list? Some facilities only require adults to be on the list, while others require minors to be included as well. Even if you have already made a request to put someone on the list, it is good to check before they visit to make sure your request has been processed.
  • How will your child react to the security? Jails and prisons can be intimidating environments for children, especially if this is their first visit. Trying to familiarize yourself with what your child will encounter during their visit and if possible explaining this information to them or their caregiver before the visit can help children feel more comfortable.
    • Think about what your child can expect to experience when going through security. Factors that could be intimidating include having dogs on site, going through a metal detector, and guards patting them down. Children may also face long lines and wait times without being able to bring along books, toys, or food. This may make children hungry, tired, and irritable by the time they are able to see you.
    • Consider informing them about the environment of the visiting room, such as if it is typically crowded and noisy with many other visitors. This may be a distraction for children during the visit, but knowing the environment ahead of time can help to prepare them.
  • Will your child/children be able to touch you? The format of the visitation can vary by facility and sometimes children can become upset if they are not able to have as much physical contact with their parent as they had anticipated. If possible, informing your child or their caregiver about what the format of the visit will be ahead of time can help children prepare for the visit. For example, factors to consider could include:
    • Are the visits video (or virtual) where you visit through a computer monitor?
    • Will you and your child be separated by Plexiglas?
    • Are contact visits allowed and if so what are the rules? Can your child hug you or sit on your lap? Do these rules vary by the age of your child?
    • How long are the visits?
  • How can you interact with your child/children? Visitations are a great time to bond with your child and thinking about what activities may be age appropriate to do during your visit can help to maximize this time.
    • If you have a baby you may want to sing quietly or read them a book.
    • An older child or teen may want to talk about what is going on with their school or sports.
    • Depending on the rules of the facility and the resources available, consider playing cards or another game together.
    • If it is a no contact visit, try to develop a signal to convey your emotions to the child, such as hands to the glass.
  • Who is bringing the child/children? Considering who is bringing your child to the visit and what your relationship is with that person can help to prevent negative conversations that may arise.
    • If you have a particularly strained relationship with the person bringing your child to visit, try to put those feelings aside so that you can prioritize this time with your child.
    • If there are things that you would like to discuss with this person that your child should not hear, encourage them to visit at another time without the child or make a plan to discuss those issues by phone.
  • Are there special visiting programs available? Some prisons have programs that allow special accommodations for visits between incarcerated mothers or fathers and their children such as contact visits or visits in child friendly rooms equipped with toys and activities. These programs can be really valuable for your children, but they often have special rules or eligibility criteria. To see if you and your child can benefit from one of these programs, ask about who can participate and how you can be involved.

Things to Consider During the Visit

  • Your child may be nervous. A child experiencing some nervousness, especially if this is their first visit, is normal. Try to give your child some time when they first arrive to settle in and consider what you know about their personality. For example, if your child is particularly shy or anxious, they may need a little more time to warm up in a new environment.
  • Your child may have changed since the last visit. If your child has visited before, but it has been a while since they have last seen you, they may comment on how you look different. Acknowledge your child’s own development and change (For example: “You’ve gotten so tall.” or “I can’t believe how many teeth you’ve lost since I last saw you!”).
  • Good questions to ask. There may be things that are happening in your child’s life that are particularly exciting or stressful for them such as moving, changing schools, or participating in a new sport or activity. Visitations can be a perfect opportunity for you to ask them about these events and their feelings about them. Every parent-child dynamic is different, but sometimes asking specific questions like “what’s your favorite class?” or “tell me about your best friend” can engage your child more than general questions like, “how are you?” Do not get discouraged if the child doesn’t talk as much as you would like. For smaller children, physical contact, if allowed, can be more important and meaningful than talking.
  • Ways to engage other than talking. Children may have their own ideas on what they would like to do during the visit. If there are toys to play with during the visit you can use this opportunity to ask if they would like to choose a game to play or if they would prefer to just sit and talk. Some facilities have photo machines or other ways that you can have a picture taken with your child. Some facilities charge with cash and coins while others require visitors to purchase tokens or tickets. Making sure caregivers are prepared to have cash with them for vending machines and photo opportunities can be useful when possible.
  • Timing matters. The time of the visit may impact how your child feels during the visit. For example, if visits begin early in the morning, children and their caregivers may have been up very early to allow time for travel or if the visits happen over the lunch hour they may feel hungry. Often, these factors are unavoidable, but it can be useful to keep in mind during the visit and try to be understanding.
  • How to make saying goodbye easier. Try to give your child 5 minute and 10 minute warnings before the end of the visit so that they can start mentally preparing to leave. Children can feel more at ease if they know the next time they will be able to visit. If you know this information, tell your child roughly when the next visit will occur. If possible, try to provide a transitional item for the child to take home such as a drawing or photo to end on a positive note.

Things to Consider After the Visit

  • Who can the child talk to about it? It is important for children to be able to express their feelings about the visit. Families and other individuals can be a great support system. Consider talking to your child’s caregiver about reaching out to a broader support network, both within and beyond your family for advice and assistance.
  • Follow-up with a call or letter. It may be helpful to call or send a letter a few days after the visit to remind your child that there are other ways to communicate other than in-person visits. It could also be nice to ask a question or share a detail that your child told you during the visit to show that you were listening, such as “how did that test go?” or “are you still feeling sad about so and so?”
  • What are other sources of support for your child? There may be programs or resources that can help your child through this time. Encourage your child’s caregiver or other family members to look into mentoring programs or other resources that can be of assistance to your child. You can share with them the "Resources for Caregivers" section.

Resources for Caregivers: Talking to Children

Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration

Materials from the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated
Age-specific guidance (PDF, 3 pages)
Advice for caregivers (PDF, 4 pages) (PDF, 2 pages)

Materials from the New Jersey Department of Corrections, When a parent goes to prison: A guide to discussing your incarceration with your children (PDF, 116 pages)

Materials from the Oregon Program, Parenting Inside Out (providing evidence-based curriculum for incarcerated mothers and fathers)
Including a set of materials targeted toward educators and caregivers and a collection of resources for children

For children in foster care (PDF, 22 pages)

Parents’ Guide to Gangs: Now Available in Spanish

NGC has published a Spanish version of the Parents' Guide to Gangs. This resource is designed to provide parents with answers to common questions about gangs and to help them recognize and prevent gang involvement.

Tip Sheet for Mentors: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (4 pages).COIP TIp Sheet for Mentors

Mentors can play an important role in addressing the needs of children of incarcerated parents. Mentors are caring adults who work with youth as positive role models in a formal or informal way, offering consistent guidance and support. Youth connect with mentors through youth-serving organizations, including community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, businesses, and after-school programs. Mentors can help improve outcomes for the children of incarcerated parents by using research-based practices and effective supports.


  • Every family’s experience is different. Some children lived with their incarcerated parent before their parent’s incarceration and others did not. Some children had a close relationship with that parent (regardless of whether they lived together) and others may not have. It is important not to make any assumptions.
  • Be aware of what researchers call the “conspiracy of silence.” Sometimes caregivers instruct children not to discuss the situation with anyone, for fear of the stigma and shame associated with incarceration. Children, too, may worry about people judging their parent. However, not understanding or not being able to talk about the situation can also be a source of stress for children. Sometimes the silence around the situation can become an inadvertent cause of shame. It is important for mentors to understand this dynamic and to signal to their mentees that they can be trusted and will not judge the child or their parent.1
  • Keep in mind that a parent’s crime or the fact that he or she is incarcerated does not indicate what kind of parent that individual was before incarceration, nor does it necessarily speak to a child’s relationship with that parent. Further, it is not a sign of the type of parent someone will be after release.

How Can Mentors Support Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent?

Mentors can build a trusting relationship by participating in various activities with the child of an incarcerated parent.

Establish Understanding

  • Recognize that children of incarcerated parents may have difficulty trusting new adults. Because many have suffered a traumatic and sudden separation from their parent, they may be slow to trust new adults in their lives for fear that these people could also leave.
  • Sign up for a mentoring commitment only if you know you can stay involved for the designated period of time. You may want to establish clear expectations with your mentee for how frequently you will see him or her.
  • Learn from your mentor organization, the family, or the caregiver, whether the child knows the parent is incarcerated, how the child is coping with the parent’s incarceration, and what the status of the relationship is between the child and the caregiver.
  • Recognize that young people who have an incarcerated parent face different realities regarding their situation, ranging from not knowing about the incarceration to having witnessed an arrest, and wondering whether it is their fault. Reinforce that the incarceration is not their fault.
  • Understand that it is the youth’s decision to share details about their parent’s absence. It is best not to ask. They may choose to tell you, but it is not important to the mentor/mentee relationship.

Develop the Relationship

  • Take the time to learn about each other by talking about interests, family, and other topics based on your mentee’s comfort level. While getting to know the youth, be aware of potential sensitivities when talking about families. It is not necessary to avoid the topic of having an incarcerated parent, but be sensitive and avoid making assumptions.
  • Identify objectives for the mentoring relationship, preferably focused on the mentee’s goals and growth, possibly through shared interests.
  • Spend time doing activities that interest the child and expose him or her to new things and places (e.g., sports, games, arts, crafts, field trips to museums) while being sensitive to how your mentee might feel when out of his or her comfort zone and in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Share stories and information about your own life experiences, including successes and challenges experienced along the way. If relevant, you may share your own experiences with having an absent parent, but keep in mind that having an incarcerated parent may be a different experience than other kinds of absence.

Mentors can help youth maintain their relationship with their incarcerated parent after learning the mentee’s, parent’s, and caregiver’s wishes regarding communication and the relationship.

  • Help your mentee understand that a parent’s incarceration does not have to be the end of the relationship between him or her and the absent parent.
  • Understand the barriers your mentee may face in maintaining or building a relationship with their incarcerated parent. These may include finances, communication, visitation/transportation, time commitments such as education and employment, and the desires of the incarcerated parent and/or caregiver.
  • Facilitate simple and inexpensive ways to foster the relationship.
    • Help youth coordinate with their parent specific days and times for phone calls, given facility rules and policies.
    • Help your mentee communicate with the incarcerated parent through letters, cards, or creative activities to keep the parent informed about the mentee’s life (e.g., drawings, photos, a collage of pictures about academic and extracurricular achievements that can be mailed or emailed to the parent). Provide the child with a box of stationery or notecards and postage, as allowed.
    • Become informed about the visitation process so you can help your mentee prepare for any potential visits to the incarcerated parent by sharing what to expect (e.g., going through security procedures, long drives and long waits, talking through a window or via videoconferencing, leaving food and personal items in the waiting area, dress codes, and lists of contraband).
  • Anticipate that visits may be difficult for the youth, even if they were looking forward to the trip. Expect that your mentee may have heightened emotions in the days following a visit. Mentors can help youth express their thoughts and emotions and explain that what they are feeling is normal. Help your mentee talk about the positive aspects of the visit.

Mentors can help the youth cope with having an incarcerated parent by understanding the situation without judgment and then providing assistance, education, and information.

  • If necessary and when appropriate, help the child understand the parent’s incarceration while honoring the wishes of the parent and/or caregiver. This may include providing or suggesting informative, age-appropriate literature. A variety of books on the topic of parental incarceration have been written for children at different age levels. You can find these books for sale online or at your public library. There are also free resources such as Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.
  • Conduct informal networking in which the young person has opportunities to meet others who can contribute to his or her growth or serve as an inspiration, including other young people with incarcerated parents so youth know they are not alone.
  • Bring your concerns to the caregiver and/or the mentoring organization if you feel you have reached your capacity to address a mentee’s needs, and consider advocating and researching options for opportunities for the child to speak with a professional counselor about any challenges they might be experiencing.2

Mentors can support and help youth prepare for and adjust to their parent’s reentry into their lives, family, and community.

  • Recognize and acknowledge that there will be a transition period and the new circumstances may present challenges for the youth, parent, and caregiver. Keep in mind that:
    • A youth might have to adapt to having both parents as caregivers. Differences in parenting philosophies and choices can be sources of stress and conflict for the whole family.
    • A caregiver might have to adjust to co-parenting, which can be challenging after long periods of parenting alone.
    • Possible custody hearings or other proceedings may be difficult.
    • The homecoming may not live up to expectations. The recently released parent may not want a child to have a mentor.
    • The current caretaker may no longer be a child’s guardian after a parent’s release. This transition could be hard on everyone.


  • Children who have an incarcerated parent are at heightened risk for exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, and inadequate education before their parent’s incarceration.3
  • The risk of children living in poverty or experiencing household instability increases with parental incarceration.4
  • Parental incarceration is recognized as an adverse childhood experience (ACE); it is distinguished from other ACEs by the combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.5
  • Youth developmental stages influence the experiences and effects of incarceration on children who have a parent in prison.6
    • Ages 2 to 6: separation anxiety, impaired social-emotional development, traumatic stress, and survivor guilt.
    • Ages 7 to 10: developmental regression, poor self-concepts, acute traumatic stress reactions, and impaired ability to overcome future trauma.
    • Ages 11 to 14: rejection of limits to behavior and trauma-reactive behaviors.
    • Ages 15 to 18: premature termination of dependency relationship with parent.

Relationship Resources

Overall Policy of Maintaining Parent-Child Relationships During Incarceration. State of Washington. (PDF, 7 pages)

Children of Parents In Jail or Prison: Issues Related to Maintaining Contact. Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh.

Children Visiting Incarcerated Parents. (PDF, 5 pages)

Children of Incarcerated Parents Library. Visiting Mom or Dad: The Child’s Perspective. (PDF, 9 pages)

Children of Incarcerated Parents Library. Jail and Prison Procedures: Information for Families. (PDF, 6 pages)

Mentoring Resources

National Mentoring Resource Center.

Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents. Jarjoura, G.R., et al. (PDF, 63 pages)

Mentoring. Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.

Support Resources

Supporting Children and Families of Prisoners. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Bureau.

Meeting the Needs of Children With an Incarcerated Parent American Bar Association.

How to Explain…Jails and Prisons…to Children: A Caregiver’s Guide. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (PDF, 15 pages)

How to Explain Jails and Prisons to Children: A Caregivers Guide. Inside Out Connection Project. (PDF, 31 pages)

Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration. Sesame Street Workshop.

General Resources

Children of Incarcerated Parents. Children of Incarcerated Parents Federal Website.

FAQs About Children of Prisoners. Prison Fellowship.


1 Jose-Kampfner, C. (1995). Post-traumatic stress reactions in children of imprisoned mothers. In K. Gabel & D. Johnston (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents (pp. 89–100). New York, NY: Lexington Books.
2 Christian, S. (2009). Children of incarcerated parents. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures.
3 Phillip, S. D., Erkanli, A., Keeler, G. P., Costello, J. E., & Angold, A. (2006). Disentangling the risks: Parent criminal justice involvement and children’s exposure to family risks. Criminology and Public Policy, 5, 677–702.
4 Ibid.
5 Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., ... Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.
6 Travis, J., McBride Cincotta, E., & Solomon, A. L. (2005). Families left behind: The hidden costs of incarceration and reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.