Helping Incarcerated Mothers Respond to Children’s Strong Emotions

“I don’t have any friends”          “My teacher hates me”

When children make strong statements like these, the response they receive from their parents is key. This is a real challenge for incarcerated mothers who have no real control.

The truth is that children aren’t always able to tell an adult how they feel. They often use words that hurt or shock, but aren’t related to the real cause of their feelings. Mothers may misinterpret how their child expresses his/her feelings. They can be so consumed with their own intense feelings regarding being incarcerated and separated from their children that they fail to focus on how their children are experiencing these changes and adjustments. “Understanding Children’s Strong Emotions” is one in the series of ten parenting classes taught to incarcerated mothers in PATCH.

Moms are taught that they need to listen with their eyes as well as their ears during time together. They are cautioned not to overreact to their children’s behavior or strong words. When the child “opens the door” with actions or words, moms should respond with actions and words that keep the door open. This way, the cause of the behavior or strong statements can be discovered and discussed. PATCH encourages moms not to judge or try to solve the problem, just respond to the child’s feelings. Help the child discover and identify their feelings. All feelings are okay.

We often discover that “I don’t have any friends” can mean “I miss you.” Falling grades and behavior issues at school can be caused by anger and resentment toward the incarcerated mother.

PATCH moms have found that using “open door statements and questions” to be one of the skills that has helped them the most in conversations with their children.