Episode 4: Communication: Letters and Calls

Audio

Transcript

Dad 1
Having any kind of contact with your kids is special, because they just need to know that you’re still around and you’ll still be there and you’re not gone.

Dad 2
But just yet that communication, you know, lets them know that you still care, you know, you’re going to be there, you know, even if you’re not there, and you know, in person, you’re still there in spirit. And they know that they know, their parent loves them.

Dad 3
I write my daughter letters and maybe I probably wrote her maybe once a month, you know, just so she could see just so she could see my handwriting and draw a picture, you know, and with calling, it’s a big struggle when, because it costs, it costs money, you know, so when you don’t have a lot of money on like your commissary, you’re limited to the conversations that you have, you know, you’re not able to really talk to them. And you know, the way you want to but you know, you got so many feelings in here, you know, but you know, you got to be a man in here, you know, you got to be strong, you know, is you can’t really express your feelings the way you want express because rather, not, you know, it is it’s how 800,000 men locked up in here and all I’m pretty sure all of us share, mutual feelings, you know, what can we express those mutual feelings to each other, you know, maybe one or two feelings, but the fact of vulnerability is not is not an option in jail. So, expressing that with your children, that’s the only way you are able to get that out.

Roxy Etta
Welcome to Anywhere Dads a podcast from University of Wisconsin Madison Extension with information and tips on how dads in jail can connect with their kids. This podcast combines the voices of dads in jail with experts in child development, parenting and incarceration. I’m your host, Roxy Etta, you just heard from currently jailed dads about how they connect with their kids. To learn more, I interviewed Dr. Cynthia Burnson, a child development and incarceration specialist. Thanks for being here. Cynthia.

Cynthia Burnson
Thank you very much.

Roxy Etta
Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Cynthia Burnson
Sure. So my name is Cynthia Burnson. I got my PhD from the Human Development and Family Studies Department. While I was doing that work, I worked with children of incarcerated parents, especially children whose parent was in jail.

Roxy Etta
Dr. Burnson will be talking to me about why staying connected to children through letters and calls while in jail matters.

Cynthia Burnson
Maintaining a connection with a child while a parent is incarcerated in a jail or prison is very important for children to still feel that connection with that parent. Letters and calls are especially important because sometimes visits can be challenging to do in person, sometimes they can be stressful. And letters and calls are a really nice way to stay connected with that child in a way that feels comfortable in terms of the pace. So a letter you can sit with for a while you can be reflective in the way that you write them, when children are writing their own letters. Or if they’re younger, if a parent is helping them write the letter, they can really use that experience as a time to talk about their feelings on how they’re missing that parent, what they’re wondering about, and express themselves in a way that can be both therapeutic and helpful in the time that they’re doing it. And also as a way to maintain that connection.

Roxy Etta
Do you have any suggestions of like, what to talk about maybe or what to say or like what to expect from younger like toddlers, preschoolers versus like older children?

Cynthia Burnson
Yes, I think it’s a really good point that the age and development of the child is really important to keep in mind. So if you’re talking about a teenager or an older child, you may think more of the traditional letter. Here’s what I’ve been doing in school, here’s things I’m excited about, maybe sports or grades or things that they’re doing with their friends a great movie that they saw. But when you think about younger children, it’s really important to keep in mind that their language is play and arts. And so thinking in terms of games, jokes, stories, that’s really a great way to connect, especially to younger children. One great tip can be to actually play a game with your child through letters. So for example, you could do a tic tac toe where you each take a turn on each letter. It’s sort of like the longest Tic Tac Toe game ever. But there’s a lot of paper based games that can be a really fun way to connect for children. Very young children are not going to be as hooked into the more traditional adults style of conversation. They’re going to be much more able to connect in a play based way. Games, jokes, stories, connecting around their favorite movies or cartoon characters or video games can also be a great way to connect. It’s common for children not to write a letter right back. And so I would say, don’t be discouraged if you’re not getting a letter right away know that that child is hanging on to that. And it means a lot. And you may write every day, you may write once a week over and over and over again, without getting much back. But know that keep doing it. It means a lot to the kids. And they may not be returning every single letter. But it really makes a big difference. Another tip I’ve heard is if you know your child’s sort of favorite video game character, TV character, movie character, you some parents can draw like an outline of the character and send it almost make their own coloring pages and send it in the mail to the kids and kids can color it in, send it back. And you can have that kind of communication that back and forth even through letters, which is a slower form of communication, but can be really meaningful.

Roxy Etta
I assume that there are some pros and cons to letters versus phone calls.

Cynthia Burnson
I think the great thing about letter writing is that it can be on its own pace, you can write a letter and send it off. And in the meantime, if you’re able to do phone calls, or visits, those can all go on at the same time. We know that letter writing is one of the most common ways to stay connected. It’s the lowest in barriers in terms of like you said, expense, it doesn’t have the distance issue. Sometimes children, especially if they’re older children can take more initiative, in terms of writing their letter to their parent. Phone calls can be a little challenging in this day and age, it seems like we have less and less experience actually talking on the phone, which is already a challenging situation for young children. I know when I talk to my son who’s six on the phone, it’s pretty hard for him to carry on a what we would sort of consider an adult conversation. And so really coming to that experience with the expectation that you’re going to be able to connect some but they’re not going to they may not be able to do an adult type conversation, a lot of kids may find a long series of questions, they may experience that as caring, or they may experience it as a little intrusive, as anyone who’s been sort of peppered by questions can can say. So there’s pros and cons to both of those. There’s also a real value in hearing the human voice of a parent. We know also from studies that children who can hear their parents’ voice that actually has a effect on their bodies in terms of calming them and having that connection to that parent. So that’s really a special type of connection.

Roxy Etta
Do you have anyadvice or thoughts on a few of the dads that I spoke to said that it was challenging, especially with their younger children to have a phone call, like the child would just like, kind of set the phone down or hand the phone back to mom. And it’s hard. It’s difficult for younger children to remain in conversation on the phone for an extended period of time. But do you have any suggestions on questions that dads can ask? So like, perhaps instead of like, how was school? Like maybe is it better to ask more specific questions or like guiding children to tell a story? What do you think?

Cynthia Burnson
When talking on the phone, especially with younger children, I would always try to connect it to their language and their language is play, their language are stories. And so questions like “How was school,” especially for younger children, if they’re not presently sitting in school can feel sort of disconnecting to them, and also, not very concrete. So I can think of a couple different ways to approach that. One could be you could tell the child a story from your own imagination or a folktale that you remember, just to have that conversation in a different sort of way. You may not be getting a lot of a lot back from your child in that way. But they’re hearing your voice. And they’re feeling that connection. I think stories and play are really the language of the young child. You may also ask questions that are more specific, like tell me about a time that you felt happy recently, or tell me about a time that you felt proud. I’m also a big fan of the beginning of a sentence of I wonder, I wonder this, I wonder that I wonder how it was for you at recess today. I wonder how your friends are doing. I wonder how your dog is doing. What’s nice about that framing is that it feels a little less pressuring, and it just opens up the space for it. So there’s fewer expectations when you’re wondering along with a child, you bring that natural curiosity to the conversation, and it feels a little less like an inquisition. Yeah. Or an interrogation.

Roxy Etta
It spoke to a couple of dads who had babies like very small under a year old, do you think that this is something that they can start doing right now? Like even just like having the caregiver or whoever family member, whoever hold the phone up to the baby’s ear and just try to talk to them for a little bit? Like, do you think it’s something definitely from the beginning? Or is there a specific age when this is most effective?

Cynthia Burnson
I think that the voice of a parent is always important, no matter the age, there have been some really interesting studies that I mentioned before, where they tested the difference between texting a message of support versus a child hearing the voice of a parent. And what they saw was that hearing the voice of a parent means a lot to a child. And it has effects on the body and on the stress regulation, and how that child feels that are really, really important. And it’s not even that as important what the content of the speech is, especially with a young young children, such as toddlers or babies. But just hearing that voice and staying connected is really important.

Roxy Etta
I also on the flip side, had heard a couple of dads mentioned that they were perhaps nervous that their older children would understand their situation that they’re incarcerated, and then maybe felt some not necessarily shame or guilt just didn’t want their child to know that they were incarcerated. Did you do have any experience of parents navigating that conversation and things that worked well, or maybe didn’t work so well?

Cynthia Burnson
Yes, I think that what we have found is that giving an honest and developmentally appropriate answer and talking with children about what the situation is, is the best way, because children are very perceptive, they’ve got big ears, they know what’s going on. Our experience has been that, regardless of what children are told, sort of officially, that they have a sense of what’s going on. And if you don’t tell them the truth, in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for them, they will fill in the gaps themselves. And sometimes the way they fill in the gaps can cause more stress or fear or anxiety. Maintaining communication with a child, while you’re incarcerated can have a mix of emotions, it’s not going to be rosy every day, the child may not be always sound happy or excited. Sometimes they may feel hurt, or sometimes they may feel nervous or afraid. And as a parent, what’s really important is to go with that child on that journey and keep that connection really at the heart of the communication, there’s going to be a mix of emotions, children may feel a stigma there, they may feel embarrassed or shame. And that’s normal. And to be able to validate those feelings is critically important for young children and children of all ages.

Roxy Etta
Do you have maybe some like example language or ways to phrase? So you mentioned developmentally appropriately? What would be developmentally appropriate to tell a five year old versus a 12 year old, for example, like you don’t want to tell a five year old the whole story in adult plain language, right?

Cynthia Burnson
So yeah, one resource that’s really great for that, as Sesame Street has put out a toolkit for caregivers and children. So some of the examples they have, especially for younger children would be things like Daddy broke a grown up rule, that’s called a law. And sometimes they’ll use the analogy of a timeout, he’s kind of in a big timeout, because he broke this grownup rule, that’s called a law. And so that type of way, relating it back to the child’s experience, most children had some experience with, you know, the guidance or discipline around maybe a timeout, or other, you know, go to your room, things like that, and to relate it back to the child so they can understand that it’s not their fault. And they can understand that their parent is safe, and that they can stay connected to them. And the basics of what have what has happened. Don’t need to hear every detail about everything that happened. Children are very good at letting you know, when they’ve had enough information, they will take in what you’ve told them. And if they’re asking follow up questions, that’s them, letting you know that they need some more information. And if they take it in and they seem satisfied with the answer, then that’s probably enough detail.

Roxy Etta
Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you’d like to share?

Cynthia Burnson
Just a few small points. When parents are thinking about staying in contact, sometimes they also have a mix of emotions, they may be worried that being in contact with the child will cause them more stress or distress from that separation. Or maybe it’s better just to wait it out and not not stay connected with them. And what we know is that staying in contact and staying in communication with children is really important. When kids have contact with their parent, they’re more likely to do better in school, they’re less likely to have feelings like depression or anxiety. They’re more likely to adapt to the situation when they’re able to have that communication. And on the flip side, we know that it’s better for the parent too to have that hope to have that connection throughout their incarceration has positive effects on their reentry, when they get out and they’re reintegrating with their family, we know that parents who are able to maintain that communication with their child are less likely to struggle with feelings of depression, and more likely to reintegrate once they’ve gotten out and maintain that connection with their child. One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to really manage your own feelings so that you can be there for your child. So you may be feeling frustrated, or angry, or even sometimes rejected from your child, if they’re not responding in a way that you would like. They may say that they don’t want to talk on the phone, they may say they don’t want to visit, they may not write you a letter back. And as the adult in that relationship, it’s really important to manage your own feelings, maybe you feel rejected or frustrated. And to move past those to continue that connection with your child.

Roxy Etta
I sort of heard you allude to this a little bit. But maybe for dads who are listening to this, and they are expecting to only be gone for a very short period of time, or maybe they haven’t started letters or calls yet, would you would your advice be to just like, give it a shot? And like as often as possible?

Cynthia Burnson
Yeah, absolutely. I think that people are, are the experts on their own situation. And there can be some barriers that can be barriers like cost, there can be barriers around relationship with the person who’s caring for the child and what that looks like, and how to navigate those things. I think under most circumstances, it is a good idea to try to keep that communication open. Every situation is different. And there may be certain things that are barriers to that, or, or otherwise affect, you know, the communication, but it’s always a great idea to reach out and get started, even if it’s something you haven’t been doing up until this point. Thanks so much. It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Roxy Etta
Anywhere Dads is a product of the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension’s Human Development and Relationships Institute and was created by Anne Clarkson, Roxy Etta, Mary Huser, Maggie Kerr, Elizabeth Lexau, Kevin Murphy, and Ciara Walker-Morgan. Music composed, arranged and performed by Doug White, Madison, Wisconsin.

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