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Coping with an Incarcerated Parent and Not Feeling Responsible For Their Emotions

My father went to prison when I was 10 years old. 

For many, that might not be shocking news (if you know me personally). But for others, you had no idea. This corner of the site is for you, the adults with childhood trauma that shaped them and you no longer want it to hold you down.

Before getting into it….I love my dad. He is still there. It has been a hard and lonely journey. It has shaped who I am and who he is and is now shaping how we look at the future together. I also want to recognize that I am fortunate on SO many levels. My parents were teenagers when they had me, my grandparents helped raise me. It allowed my mom to go to college and build a career and gave me stability and opportunity. However, I have been deeply shaped by my experiences, hid behind my positive attitude, and suffered alone. Even with all of those blessings I had, it didn't diminish the pain, loneliness, and trauma. I was left to cope and manage feelings I should not have been responsible for.

I will never forget when my mom told me that my dad was in jail, going to prison, and not coming back for a long time. I was sitting alone in my grandpa’s office, on his blue lazy boy style chair, covered in a yellow and white checkered blanket, and simply just replied with “Okay”. I had just seen him, in person, a month earlier for the first time in who knows how long.

In the last 22 years, a lot has happened. Missed birthdays, milestones, births, deaths, heartaches, marriages, divorces, vacations, sports games, plays, and holidays. A lot of trauma, a lot of loneliness, and the last two and a half years have forced me to deal with those things head-on. Funny how having a child brings up all of your untouched childhood trauma haha.

At times, it is difficult for me to be genuinely honest about the burdens I have carried in my life. In the past that was due to shame, fear, and not having the right support system in place to talk through things. No one else I knew had someone behind bars, most didn't know how to talk about the situation, and there was delicate family dynamics. I felt I had no one to really talk to about incarceration, what it was like going behind bars, and I didn't see I needed coping strategies. I didn’t know how to process my own emotions, so I became deeply detached from them. 

My journey to coping with incarceration was a slow process. Starting around 2018, I saw a biblical counselor to work through the anxiety and depression that would grip me if I missed a call from my dad. That was beyond helpful to realize that I put myself in a role I shouldn't. I am not responsible for the emotional management of my dad and if I believe God is in control, why do I think I am the one keeping my dad alive simply by answering the phone?

Simple truth but my first point:

Coping with an Incarcerated Parent means YOU are not responsible for their emotions.

I may be hyper-sensitive to the energies of others, but that does not mean I need to personalize it or take responsibility for things that I shouldn't.

This isn't permission to be a jerk or rude or insensitive, but the sooner we learn that other people's feelings and responses are not ours to control, obsess over, or manage, the better you will feel. We are only responsible for how we talk to, treat, and interact with others.

Learning to love who you are, that you have needs, you can express them, and if someone responds poorly, that does not mean that YOU don't matter. Lord, I wish I learned that sooner haha. You do not need to allow for people to disrespect or miss treat you because they are a family member, friend, boss, etc. Learning to have respect for your own boundaries is life changing.

What we experienced

in childhood, will carry into adulthood. If you have never thought about, dealt with, or processed anything in your past, you are carrying all of that with you now. To have healthy relationships, we need to have healthy thought patterns, emotional regulation, and the ability to express our needs.

I say this a lot, but I believe that life does not happen to me, but for me.

So my second point is this:

man in prison in front of painted wings

God wastes nothing, you can find ways to cope and heal.

Whether you are a believer or not. Sometimes our experiences are a result of other people's actions (like my dad going to prison) and sometimes it is our own choices. No matter what, we always have the option in how we respond to adversity. We either use it as an opportunity to stand back up and learn or we use it as a reason to never move forward and remain the victim in our life story.

I spent a lot of time stuck in the "never move forward" space. It is why I am passionate now about working with moms and women who are experiencing hardship, difficulty, or adversity in their current stage of life, because I have been there, I have worked through it, and I want you to do that as well!

Coaching is about uncovering the present roadblocks and work through those to get to where you want to be, in a partnership that is safe, accountable, and able to repair when needed.

Seeing yourself as worthy, autonomous, and that you CAN heal is what is life changing. Sometimes you need a safe space to process and plan to charge ahead.

No matter how you slice it, a 10-year-old losing her dad to drugs, crime, and prison is never easy. You can be surrounded by love and still feel lonely. You can have nothing and still rise above. You can have every opportunity afforded to you and still squash it all. Everyone’s journey through trauma is different. No matter your background, status, or support system, trauma is painful and life altering.

When you have a loved one who is in prison, you are also serving that sentence with them and that is someone most don't understand. You are behind bars with your parent, even if you are able to leave at the end of the visit.

This corner of this site is for you. The child, parent, cousin, niece, nephew, friend, spouse…whatever role play, I hope to help you feel less alone. I hope to help you process your emotions. Encourage you to seek help. See that there is a future where you are no longer chained behind bars.

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