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'Sesame Street' on Parents in Jail: Top 5 Tips

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 18, 2013 9:21 AM

There are more parents in jails and prisons than people might realize. In fact, 1 in 28 children in the United States now has a parent behind bars -- more than the number of kids with a parent who is deployed in the armed forces, according to a Pew report. It's a serious issue, but the topic is rarely broached because of the stigma.

Leave it to "Sesame Street" to tackle a topic that others are too afraid to touch. The show has introduced Alex, a blue-haired and green-nosed character with a hoodie, who is the first Muppet to have a dad in jail, reports Today.com.

Here are five tips for parents behind bars, inspired by the general awesomeness of "Sesame Street" and its "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" initiative:

  1. Have a routine and build security. Children typically find comfort and security through stability and routine. A fair amount of structure does a world of good for a child's psychological and emotional health, even if a parent is behind bars. "Sesame Street" suggests it may help to let your child know that a jail phone call or visit is part of a weekend routine, for example.
  2. Communicate your affection in a tangible way. A major issue for children with parents behind bars is building trust. You may want to give your child a small trinket to express how much you care about them and that you'll always be there for them. Likewise, encourage your child to communicate with and make drawings for the incarcerated parent. It will help the child cope with and express their feelings in their own way.
  3. Answer honestly. When your child asks where the incarcerated parent is, answer truthfully. Don't be malicious, but be frank. Explain to the child that his or her parent is in jail, which is where grown-ups sometimes have to go when they break a rule called a law.
  4. Prepare together. Before visiting an incarcerated loved one with your child, take a moment to prepare your child. Explain to them that you may not be able to sit together because of the glass window, but you can still talk together -- and laugh.
  5. Make phone calls. As long as it seems healthy for the child, have him or her speak to her incarcerated parent on the phone. Since kids can be shy, help them remember recent eventful things that happened at school, with friends or at home that they'd like to share. Have the child hold a photo of the parent during the call.

If you or someone you know has a child with a parent behind bars, have them look into the Sesame Workshop's "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" initiative. It's an online tool kit intended to help kids and provide families with strategies and tips regarding parental incarceration.

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