Illustration by Alyssa Etoile.

Illustration by Alyssa Etoile.

This month’s Club Thrive question, from K.J., speaks for itself:

Today, my mom told me that my dad was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute—a felony. Now, I’m a 16-year-old girl and consider myself fairly strong. I’d like to think that I can stand on my own, and pick myself up when I fall, but this brought me back.

It brought me back to being seven and reading the letters that he sent me from the state’s correctional facility. Being eight, and visiting him in jail. Being nine, and avoiding the questions that my friends would ask me about my father. Being 11, and feeling so happy that he was there at my elementary school graduation. Being 12, and finally feeling proud to call my father “Dad.” Being 13, and finding out what he did to be sent away, and why.

My father may not see me graduate high school. His court date is in four months. I’m expecting the worst, which is not seeing my dad for up to 15 years. How do you make the best out of the limited amount of time left with someone you love? How do I stay positive through this experience when everyone around me has a dad who’s there and present for them? —K.J., 16, Florida

Dearest K.J.,

The tenderness of your email already implies that you know this, but it has to be said: Love is more powerful than concrete walls and metal bars. Even though we haven’t met, there’s no question that you are extremely strong, and that you have deep affection and compassion for your father, but there’s also no shame in being rocked by this turn of events. This is why I’d like you to:

Remember that you are not alone.

Though I’m sure it feels this way sometimes. However, you are one of more than 5 million Americans under the age of 18 who has seen a parent go to jail, or who has a parent that is currently incarcerated. (Sadly, that’s one in 14 people in your age group.) While everyone has different needs for support, consider exploring opportunities to connect with other people who have parents in prison, or with organizations that offer resources to people with family members in prison. You can find a national directory of these organizations here, and a list of Florida organizations here. A guidance counselor or social worker could be helpful in finding local support groups, or even group therapy, which could be a space to explore feelings of love, loss, and fear about the future with people who understand.

Another option might be joining a Girl Scouts Beyond Bars troop, where you can meet other girls with parents in prison, get involved in group activities and meetings, and visit your parents together. (I recently met some Girl Scouts Beyond Bars in Austin, Texas, and they said that their parents felt connected to their daily lives because they were able to stay involved in their troop from prison.) Girl Scouts Beyond Bars troops are often associated with a specific correctional facility; your local Girl Scouts Council should have information about whether there is a GSBB troop in your area.

Know, too, that you are a statistic of one.

Consulting stats, as well as people who have had experiences similar to your own, can be useful and healing, but it is also important to remember that you are a unique human with her own incomparable path. While you may be reading or hearing about trends and stories related to having a parent in prison, the only person who gets to define how you’re processing and adjusting to this circumstance is you.

Feel your feels.

I wish I could tell you to “stay positive,” but I have always been wary of that brand of advice. Whenever folks have told me to remain optimistic, or to focus on the bright side, I’ve spent more time beating myself up for not being able to let go, or to be sunny enough to satisfy the unicorn-like people who say they never, ever feel upset/sad/scared/doubtful/wary/suspicious/downright pissed/betrayed in the name of maintaining “positivity.”

“Staying positive” when I’m initially faced with distress or profound loss is a hapless pursuit for me. I really need to dive into the dark depths of my wounds to understand them before I can swim back up to sunlight and air. I’m not saying that this is how you should manage your own challenges: I’m only asking that you consider the alternatives to feeling like you have to “stay positive” throughout this whole process.

The writer and researcher Brené Brown says, “unused creativity is not benign.” I agree, and I believe that similar wisdom applies to suppressed feelings when devastating things, like having to be separated from our loved ones, happen. Sometimes bottling up our feelings in the name of making someone comfortable (including ourselves) is more excruciating than revealing and accepting our raw feelings in the present. IMHO, releasing feelings versus repressing them often saves us from greater suffering later on.


Deborah Jiang-Stein is one of the most powerful storytellers I have ever met (she also has a big, radiant heart—which it sounds like you do, too). Her memoir, Prison Baby, is about her discovery that she had been born in prison. On NPR, Deborah talked about her own life as being evidence that we can find wholeness by looking at “the broken pieces.” Her story is her own, of course, but it is a reminder that we have power to transform the most unbending circumstances into something beautiful.

My friend Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow is a book I’ve often found solace in. It may help you, too.

And this is a fairly recent article written by librarians, for librarians, to help teenagers with incarcerated parents find books that address experiences similar to theirs; if you scroll to the bottom of the page, they’ve compiled a list of recommended novels. (There’s also a list of links, including one to a resource guide written by teenagers in San Francisco who have incarcerated parents, for teenagers who have incarcerated parents.)

Embrace that there’s no stigma, and no shame.

I wish I could guarantee that no one will ever make judgmental or disparaging comments about your father, but I know that people often criticize that which they fear or don’t understand.

It’s often easy for folks who have never had a family member of friend serve time to demonize all prisoners, without knowing or understanding the social conditions that propel so many nonviolent “offenders” into the prison-industrial complex in the first place. I’ve seen several of my cousins enter and leave prison, and I know firsthand that good people can end up incarcerated.

Unfortunately, the media and many of our other social institutions shape how people think about prison and policing. There are a lot of reasons why people are incarcerated that are beyond the control of the prisoners themselves. (The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which is eerily unsurprising given that private prisons can legally profit off of keeping people in jail.) Anyone who stigmatizes or shames prisoners’ children lacks empathy and, very likely, an understanding of why our justice system itself is problematic. When, and if, someone shames or stigmatizes you—or your dad—take a deep breath and remember that they are not a credible source and that you have nothing to be ashamed of.

Prioritize your time together.

Talk to your dad about how you can prioritize your time together now. Do the everyday things you will miss doing with him. Because you’re in Florida, be outside as much as possible—in the sun or at the beach—because he won’t have as much access to nature in prison.

Work with your dad to make new habits and traditions for when he’s away—these could include care packages with items he suggests (if they’re on the approved prison list, of course), book swaps, and plans to study the same language or subject. It’s important to set norms while you can establish them together. Once you know your dad’s schedule, you can also set aside time during your day to have a meal, do yoga, meditate, or read when he is doing those things, too. It may help you feel his companionship even when he can’t physically be there with you.

As you prepare to make one of the biggest transitions of both of your lives, be gentle with yourself. Surround yourself with as much love as you can from your friends and adults you trust. I’m sure your dad wants that for you, too. Sending warm thoughts, and hope for the shortest sentence possible for your dad, K.J. ♦

Do you have a question for Club Thrive? Please email it to [email protected] and include your name/nickname/initials, city/state, and age.