How Incarcerated Parents Can Stay Connected With Their Children (Part 1): Danielle Cotter

Children and parents alike are greatly impacted by a parent’s incarceration. Evidence-based research shows it’s essential to maintain and strengthen contact for the relationship to thrive and to ward off possible damaging effects from prolonged separation. 

Children, regardless of age, are hard-wired to desire connection and contact with their parents. There are many things a parent can do to create and sustain a positive relationship with their children — even from prison. 

“Secure attachment” with a parent or caregiver is essential for positive child development. Incarceration limits contact between parents and their children, and contact has certainly been even more limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is still much that can be done to ensure secure attachment from a distance. There are three key ingredients — attention, attunement, and trust. 

Attention is the ability of the parent to focus on their child and tune out other distractions. Parents can give their child positive attention by doing things like making eye contact, watching and commenting on the child’s actions, and making sure they are physically open and turning toward their child. When in-person visits are allowed between parent and child, it’s important that the parent actively give their child attention. This gives them the feeling of significance and belonging. If in-person visits are not possible, a parent can still express attention through letter writing and phone calls. During these alternative modes of interaction, it’s important for the parent to actively ask the child questions, and respond to show they are listening to their answers. 

Attunement is the parent’s ability to empathize and validate their child’s emotions. This may be difficult when a parent and/or their child is under stress, which is common during incarceration, so parents might have to work a little harder on this one. For attunement to occur, parents have to “read between the lines” of their child’s forms of communication. Most children have trouble expressing their feelings and need their caregivers to both interpret and affirm their emotional states. It can help if the parent asks questions like “How do you feel about that?” or, “I wonder if that (insert situation) made you feel (insert possible feeling).” Just asking questions, remaining interested, and affirming possible emotions is helpful for connection and creates trust and safety within the relationship. 

Trust is another factor in secure attachment. Consistency is critical for a parent to build trust with their child. If a child can predict contact with their parent, as well as expect certain things from their interactions, their stress is lowered and they feel safe. If the parent can, for example, write a letter once a week or have a 10-minute phone call every other day, this will help the child predict contact and stay connected to their parent during the parent’s incarceration. 

Stay Connected is a two-part blog series by Danielle Cotter. Read Part 2.

Danielle Cotter, MA, LMFT, PMH-C, is a writer who crafts original and thought-provoking content for mental health & wellness companies, nonprofit organizations, holistic entrepreneurs, and the occasional publication. She’s passionate about writing for organizations that have a strong vision of making the world a healthier, happier, and safer place to be. Her work experience also includes being a licensed therapist, yoga teacher, nonprofit outreach director, and marketing manager. Learn more about Danielle at