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How Children with an Incarcerated Parent Navigate the Holiday Season

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Taniah pictured with her father while she was in kindergarten.
Courtesy: Taniah Duvall

The most wonderful time of the year is especially reserved for families celebrating and making memories. But for children of incarcerated parents, this time of year can be anything but wonderful and is often riddled with a roller coaster of emotions and worry.

Taniah Duvall, a 20 year old woman in Prince George’s County, Maryland, spent 12 years of her childhood with an incarcerated father. Duvall says that “having to constantly question his well-being and wondering if I could wake up one day and receive news that there was an accident or the possibility that he could get sick is worrisome and that would take an emotional toll on me.” She continues, “In addition the holidays can be a reminder to a child with an incarcerated parent of all the time lost or will be lost . As Duvall grew up and became more acquainted with the word “jail” she later understood to her it meant “12 Christmases, 12 Thanksgiving, and 12 Fathers’ day lost”

There are already enough issues plaguing families this year. With learning how-to survive a surging pandemic, working from home, transitioning to virtual learning and navigating a volatile economy; families are stressed. Now, imagine your children waking up full of emotion, anxious with anticipation as thousands of thoughts flood their young minds. They race down the stairs with excitement pumping through their heart. It's Christmas morning! After tearing through shimmery paper and pretty bows, the eagerness of the morning begins to wane. You realize they’ve opened all of their gifts but you are the only one there commemorating the moment with them. A sinking filling sets in as you recall your solo-parent status and the reason for the other parent's absence. They are incarcerated. Sadly, this will be the harsh reality for many families on Christmas morning.

While there are many things that families can do to help reduce the emotional stress of the season, the surging pandemic has brought about a host of issues. One of the largest is the close of visitation rooms; which has made it difficult for families with loved ones involved in the criminal justice system.

Children are especially vulnerable and depending on the child, emotions can range from wanting to be around the missing parent more, especially if they are newly incarcerated; or the child may want less contact. More parents struggle to find ways to reduce holiday-related stress that is often magnified due to all of the festivities and holiday traditions going on during this time of year. Like Duvall, most children do not know what kinds of questions to ask their parents about the range of emotions they’re feeling.

Pictured: Taniah and her family with her father, while he was incarcerated.
Courtesy: Taniah Duvall

Families are tasked with coming up with creative ways to ‘normalize’ this season for children and make things as festive as possible. Beyond spending time with children to explain why the other parent is absent and giving them an opportunity to express themselves emotionally, it is important to strengthen the children’s support network. Extended families are wonderful for connecting children to a wider support network as they are able to offer additional love and support that may be required, especially around the holiday season. Although, families report that this season add layers of challenges, as a result of parents and grandparents restricting visits to others, as a result of climbing COVID-19 hospitalizations and complications in the US.

Because of these vulnerabilities, parents are learning about new ways to ensure that the children are safe, and not exposed to harmful or triggering behavior that could further complicate an already stressful time.

Despite the pandemic and the damper that 2020 has posed to families, many organizations are available to offer support to children for the holiday season, such as, “Toys For Tots” “Prison Fellowship” and “Save The Children”. Some organizations, such as Flikshop, specifically support children with parents who are in the criminal justice system. Duvall says that writing and visiting her father was one of the most vital components to their relationship growth. After writing a research paper for her 10th grade English class about her experiences using the Flikshop app, Duvall connected with Marcus Bullock (CEO/Flikshop) to express her gratitude for helping her to stay connected during one of the hardest times of her family’s life.

Flikshop has created a tool that allows families to send photos to their loved ones for less than $1 each. Through the Flikshop Angels program, community members can assist with the goal of keeping children connected to their incarcerated parents. Flikshop Angels allows children to send a message and picture to their absent parent anywhere in the United States at no cost to the family or caregiver. Holiday traditions are an important component of keeping the Christmas magic alive. If there is a family tradition between the children and the other parent it’s important to make attempts to keep that tradition alive. However, if attempts are unsuccessful, Flikshop Angels is a wonderful way to help families establish a new tradition during the holiday season.

Taniah and her father on the day of his release from prison in 2020.
Courtesy: Taniah Duvall

The challenges of the current pandemic have only compounded the problems experienced by many families and their loved ones due to social distancing requirements. Maintaining a strong relationship between children and the absent parent is vital and helpful to all parties both emotionally and socially. Now more than ever staying connected is everything.

Today, Taniah and her dad have been reunited, and they are enjoying spending time together...especially for the holidays.



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