Why Does My Mentee Act That Way?

Insights Into Why Children of Incarcerated Parents May Act Out…

Seedling mentors serve as positive adult role models for children whose parents are incarcerated. And, while Seedling mentors are not mental health counselors, it is helpful to know and understand the unique challenges facing this vulnerable group of children.

NCTSN-LogoThe National Child Traumatic Stress Network published a report titled “Children with Traumatic Separation: Information for Professionals.” This article provides some insights into why children of incarcerated parents may act out. According to the article, separation from a parent can be a frightening event for a child, and they may develop post-traumatic responses that can include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Disturbing images of the separation reenacted in play or depicted in art
  • Avoiding reminders of what happened, such as people, places, situations, or things associated with the traumatic event
  • Negative belief about oneself, others, or the event
  • Negative changes in mood (e.g., sadness, anger, fear, guilt, shame)
Child hugging caregiver

Image courtesy of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

In addition to having post-traumatic symptoms related to separation from the parent, the child may face other challenges, such as viewing the absent parent as “all good,” and may demonstrate devotion to the absent parent by defying the current parent or caregiver. They may believe that caring about or loving one caregiver will imply betrayal of the other. The child may also have overly negative beliefs about the absent parent, mistakenly believing that the parent’s incarceration was their intentional way of abandoning the child. This belief can lead the child to hold on to negative feelings (e.g. sadness, anxiety, anger) and engage in problematic behaviors (e.g. aggressive or oppositional behavior, self-injury, substance abuse, running away) in an attempt to cope with those feelings and regain some sense of control of the experience.

Children who have lost a parent to incarceration may also believe that something they did or did not do caused their parent to leave. Inaccurate self-blame leads many children to feel bad about themselves or to participate in negative behaviors in order to receive the punishment they may feel they deserve.

Boy with head in hands

Image courtesy of The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Some children who have experienced traumatic separation may avoid caring about anyone or anything, possibly to keep from being hurt again. In some cases, the child may wish that the incarcerated parent never return or act as if the parent has died. This type of self-protection prevents the child from living in the present, receiving needed support, and experiencing positive relationships. It may lead to shutting down feelings and avoiding people, relationships, and situations that lead to upsetting emotions.

While the information in this article is aimed at counselors and other helping professionals, this knowledge can help Seedling mentors better understand the background into the behaviors they may see in the Seedling student they meet with each week. Although the day-to-day real life challenges in this population of children can seem overwhelming, we know that the continued, long-term presence of a positive, nonjudgmental, adult role model, like a Seedling mentor, can be a major protective factor in helping children of incarcerated parents overcome these challenges.

Many children can develop resilience by having a trusted friend, or simply by having someone to turn to when they need comfort.

Access the full article referenced above at:

~Seedling Mentor Program Staff

This entry was posted in Children of Incarcerated Parents, Mentoring, Site-Based Mentoring and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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