At the age of 14, both of Jane’s biological parents were incarcerated for drug-related offences. Prior to this, she would witness them consuming drugs in her presence. This happened on multiple occasions, which often left her feeling fearful and helpless. Their incarceration produced many mixed emotions within her: Jane was hurt and disappointed, yet relieved that the situation had finally come to an end. She was alone and felt abandoned. Yet, there was also a sense of peace and safety that she had never experienced throughout her childhood.
In the immediate days after her parents’ incarceration, Jane found herself in great emotional and psychological turmoil as she struggled to make sense of what she was going through. Losing both her parents at 14 felt as though her whole world had collapsed. As the older sibling, she also felt a responsibility to be the “parent” — a role for which she felt ill-equipped and completely unprepared to carry out. Even when surrounded by classmates who cared for her, she presented a lack of academic motivation as thoughts about her parents’ incarceration and life without them would cause her to tear up.
Light in the Darkness
When it seemed as though all hope was lost, a family welcomed and embraced Jane and her siblings: A family they now call their own. This family provided comfort and a safe haven – what Jane needed most after losing both her parents to incarceration. Jane’s maternal aunt took over the care of Jane and her sibling and invited them to move in to live with her family. Jane’s relationship with her aunt turned out to be a powerful resource as she adapted to a new norm without her parents.
According to research, one of the primary mechanisms of resilience in adolescents is the presence of stable relationships with positive adult role models. This includes parents or other significant adults in the adolescent’s life. Jane recognised that what helped her to cope was having someone to confide in about her emotions, someone whom she was able to trust and feel safe with. Jane developed a close relationship with her aunt, which was pivotal in helping her to emerge from the turmoil with much strength and hope. Her aunt also introduced her to Islam and its religious practices, encouraging her to pray and read the Qur’an daily, which Jane eventually did. Her newfound relationship with a higher power also provided a different form of comfort and strength. This enabled her to extend forgiveness to her parents, even when she did not have the answers to many questions.
Jane’s school counsellor and social worker from a youth agency also supported her in her journey of finding hope and healing. Despite her parents’ incarceration, she has found a renewed strength and purpose to move on. She no longer blames her parents but prays for them and looks forward to the day she gets to meet them face to face again. It was a process — and it took time, support from others, and a personal choice to step out of the darkness. It required internal and external factors to support her mental health, ultimately contributing to her overall well-being.
Managing the Impact of Parental Incarceration
The deleterious effects of parental incarceration on the mental health of children and adolescents are said to persist throughout their lives. Research has found that men whose parents were incarcerated during childhood are at significant risk of experiencing anxiety and depression.
Exposure to the parents’ criminality, arrest, and subsequent prolonged separation can have detrimental effects on the children’s social, emotional, and psychological well-being. Incarceration can also exacerbate existing problems, such as financial difficulties, and put additional strain on families. Changes to family structures and caregiving arrangements — especially the loss of a primary caregiver — can cause the children of incarcerated parents to experience feelings of hurt and abandonment.
While many domains of research highlight the poor outcomes of children with incarcerated parents, Jane’s story challenges those predictive trajectories. Instead, it has demonstrated the fact that adolescents are resilient individuals. The proper support systems can further strengthen this resilience and mitigate the negative impacts of parental incarceration.
Recognising Resilience and Resources
Adolescents are indeed very much resilient — even when the storms of life appear to be too overwhelming. Yet, identifying resources and making them accessible is crucial to moving them towards positive trajectories. Perhaps, it also requires us, practitioners, to believe in the power of these resources; to believe in the innate resilience of adolescents, to trust in the process, and to find the light in the darkness. There is, after all, a light at the end of the tunnel. But as Ada Adams puts it,
“Some tunnels just happen to be longer than others.”
To the youths who are reading this: If you relate to the story of Jane and are struggling with the divorce of your parents, as cliché as it sounds, know that you are not alone. Reach out to a trusted adult – be it a family member, teacher, school counsellor, or your social worker. There are also these helplines you can get in touch with as well:
- Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service : https://www.ec2.sg/
- Tinkle-friend counselling support service for primary-school children: 1800-274-4788, TOUCHLine youth counselling hotline : 1800-3772252
- Care Corner Youth Services Instagram : @youthxcarecorner
- INSIGHT (Care Corner Mental Health Department) Instagram : @insightccs
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) 24-hour suicide prevention hotline : 1-767
A recount of Jane’s experience by Chelsea Lim, a Social Worker from Youth Services at Care Corner.
Name has been changed for privacy.
Colman, I., Wadsworth, M., Croudace, T. and Jones, P., 2007. Forty-Year Psychiatric Outcomes Following Assessment for Internalizing Disorder in Adolescence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(1), pp.126-133. Davis, L. and Shlafer, R., 2017. Mental health of adolescents with currently and formerly incarcerated parents. Journal of Adolescence, 54, pp.120-134.
Masten, A., Best, K. and Garmezy, N., 1990. Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2(4), pp.425-444. Murray, J. and Farrington, D., 2008. Parental imprisonment: Long-lasting effects on boys’ internalizing problems through the life course. Development and Psychopathology, 20(1), pp.273-290.
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