A Teen’s Guide to Healing from Parental Incarceration

Anyé Young holding her new book “The Teen Guide to Living with Incarcerated Parents” alongside her mother. Photo courtesy LaDàna Drigo

Anyé Young remembers the first time she went to Dave and Buster’s without her dad.

The arcade was where Young and her father forged many happy memories together, a special place that Young considered “our thing.”

After her father was incarcerated when Young was 9, there were no more trips to Dave and Buster’s. Going there with her mother, after her father was sent away, drove home the absence of her father from her life.

“I was cranky, I was kind of upset because it was a reminder of all I didn’t have, which was my dad there,” Young said. “Going there was a sacred thing and it was a reminder of the bond I lost with my dad.”

Sent to prison on a theft charge, her father isn’t scheduled to be released for maybe another six years, until a time when Young may be graduating college.

Now 16, Young is a high school senior in Maryland who dealt with the experience of growing into adulthood without her father by writing about it. Her book — “The Teen Guide to Living with Incarcerated Parents: A Self-Help Book for Coping During an Age of Mass Incarceration” — offers advice about how to deal with an incarcerated parent and how to thrive during those tough circumstances.

Young is hardly alone. According to a study from Pew Charitable Trusts, about 2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent, which means that one in every 28 children in the country have a parent behind bars. One in nine African American children and one in 28 Latino children have an incarcerated parent, compared with just one in 57 white children in the country.

As the U.S. prison population has continued to grow over the past 30 years, the ranks of children of offenders have surged as well. A policy brief from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 5 million children have had a parent locked up at some point in their lives, including 179,000 in North Carolina, the state where Young’s father is incarcerated.

Children of incarcerated parents are often a forgotten part of assessing the impact of mass incarceration, but there is an increasing focus on the trauma faced by these youngsters. Thanks to the popularization of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Questionnaire, researchers now treat the experience of growing up with an incarcerated parent as a risk factor for poor long-term health outcomes, along with other experiences of childhood trauma, such as physical abuse, domestic abuse and substance abuse at home.

While there is not a substantial body of research on the topic, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to struggle at school than other students and often deal with behavioral issues, substance abuse and health issues.

Part of that is due to the fact that losing a parent at an early age can be very disruptive, particularly for younger children during an important developmental time.

For Young, that meant an abrupt end of a relationship with a sometimes-goofy father who would always dress as either Yoda or Darth Vader from the “Star Wars” movies when he took her trick or treating as a young girl.

“I was so upset,” Young said. “I felt abandoned.”

Young hopes that by writing the book, she can help other teens and young people impacted by the criminal justice system. But she also wants to draw attention to a daunting family legacy. In addition to her father, Young’s grandfather was also incarcerated, and now Young’s brother — 11 years her senior — has ended up behind bars. That intergenerational cycle was something Young wants more young people to be aware of.

“My brother got incarcerated, and I saw him quite literally following in my father’s footsteps,” Young said. “I wanted other kids to know that they do have a choice and that they can go after something else in life rather than following the path that society really does expect them to take.”

Trying to avoid that pattern of incarceration filled her with anxiety.

Anyé Young shares her story about dealing with her father’s incarceration in a new book.

When I recognized this pattern, I felt a sense of pressure,” Young said. “That’s because I didn’t see anyone else in my family going a different way. When you see that kind of pattern and choosing to be the one to break that chain, it’s really hard.”

Young says she never told anyone at school about her father — including her closest friends — because she felt a lot of embarrassment and shame about his incarceration. That stigma closed her off to some relationships.

“Friends are supposed to be there when you feel like you can’t talk to just anybody or even a family member about what you’re going through,” Young said. “I didn’t want to tell anybody what I was going through because I thought they would not like me anymore; I felt like they would stop being friends with me; I thought they would judge me. That really limited the friendships. I didn’t get to have that best-friend bond. I didn’t have a bond with any of my friends.”

One of her most acute fears was that if more people knew that her father was in prison, they would think she was a “criminal in training.”

“When you think of prisoners, you think of these terrible people that must have done something so horrendous and so monstrous and then realizing that you’re associated with someone that’s depicted that way,” Young said. “When you think about it that way, the way society wants you to perceive them … then you realize that by being associated with someone like that [people] are going to think you’re just the same. I don’t want people to think of me that way.”

Thanks to the support of her mother, Young has learned to open up more and express herself, something that happened gradually during her adolescence.

“I was trying to bottle all this stuff inside and trying to ignore it,” she said. “I thought if I ignored it, it would just go away and that’s not at all what helped me.”

Young is now thriving in high school. She’s getting good grades, with an eye toward continuing a newfound love of acting in college. Young is also an active member of her community, volunteering with Rebuild Dominica, a nonprofit relief organization, and for the Washington, D.C., youth development initiative My Fairy GodParents.

Young sees her process of getting involved with her community as a critical part of healing. When she was 13, Young’s mother got her out of bed one Saturday and made her volunteer with Rebuild Dominica, an effort to help the Caribbean island recover after a tropical storm.

When I was 13, I hadn’t really done extracurriculars before,” Young said. “I was like, ‘Volunteer work, ew!’ But after I did it, I actually realized there are more important things in this world than yourself. That’s what made me realize there’s a world out there and something that needs to be experienced.”

Now, as she prepares to complete her last year of high school, Young is still in touch with her father. Though she isn’t able to visit him at his prison in North Carolina, they talk every week or sometimes every other week. Young also tries to send him letters and to update him about her progress.

Young said that writing the book has helped her forgive her father. That’s something that she hopes society can share with those who are incarcerated and their families.

“I feel like people as humans, we do bad things that we know we shouldn’t do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be forgiven,” Young said. “We still do deserve love. We’re just works in progress.”

If you are interested in reading more news, guidance, and information around developmental trauma, read our annual special issue “Healing Matters: A National Resource on Developmental Trauma” by clicking here

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