“The Real Housewives of New Jersey“ star, Teresa Giudice, is only hours away from surrendering to begin a 15-month prison sentence. As the clock ticks, one of the touchiest and most passionate subjects surrounding this family mess is exactly how Teresa & Joe have handled preparing their four daughters.
Everyone can agree that these undeserving children are getting a raw deal, but it is also believed that with a careful strategy, the trauma can be lessened. Reports have surfaced, claiming that the two younger girls have been left in the dark about the hard truth, and Joe and Teresa have confirmed the same naive belief. What are some recommended guidelines, advising how to bring children of the incarcerated through such a trial in the healthiest way possible?
The New Jersey Department of Corrections is on it, and has published a manual titled “When A Parent Goes to Prison/ A Guide to Discussing Your Incarceration With Your Children.” While this is a state oriented publication, to kids, prison is prison, and this easy to understand and sensible guide could certainly come in handy at Camp Giudice right now. After all, common-sense can’t be stolen or bought, and based on all the info that has leaked throughout this strainer-like crap storm, common-sense is in short supply with this criminal reality couple.
First of all, the manual stresses that TRUTH is essential for kids to process what’s happening in a healthy way.
“Children need to be told the truth about their parents’ situation. You build their trust when you tell the truth – even if it hurts. Besides, if they find out you lied about a loved one in prison, they’ll be hurt twice as hard …about the imprisonment and your deception. While you may believe that you can explain a loved one’s absence with a vague answer, (they are in the hospital, working for the state or away at school) children usually find out. Also, if you lie about this, what else are you not telling the truth about?”
That last sentence is certainly a loaded question! The guide also reminds the parent that if kids aren’t given an explanation that makes sense, their imaginations tend to take them to places worse than the truth.
“Provide children with guidance about what to tell people outside the family. Should they say, “you’re separated” or “he’s away” or “in prison”? Every situation is different – so help children prepare for questions, teasing or offers of support from others. Children may also need guidance in dealing with stigmatization and teasing that they may experience in the playground.”
Unfortunately the guide doesn’t offer helpful tips for well-known children of high profile television personalities. Clearly a custom strategy needs to be worked out for when those awkward scenarios inevitably arise. There is also a section breaking down how different ages process exactly what is going on. Gia, Gabriella, Milania, and Audriana represent all of the age scenarios.
For younger children (age 5 and under):
Children at this age will probably be most concerned with where you are, when they will see you again, and when you are coming home. Try to use words that your children can relate to and understand. At this age, children generally don’t understand what prison is, or why someone is sent to prison.
For children in elementary school (ages 6-10 years):
Children at this age may begin to want more information and start to ask more questions. Children around 7-8 years old are beginning to develop a sense of right and wrong. They may begin to understand what prison is and that people are sent to prison because they did something wrong.
Research indicates that 40 percent of teenagers who have an incarcerated parent visit them less frequently during their teenage years. Although they still need parental guidance and structure, they are developing their own sense of identity separate from their parents. It is important that you let them know what your expectations of them are.
The manual points out that often the prisoner maintains false innocence, because of the family rejection that an admission of guilt might trigger. The suggested strategy to address the emotional turmoil that the Giudice children are likely struggling with is simple, but powerful.
“Many children are extremely angry. They feel abandoned by parents who risked incarceration by their conflict with the law. In most cases, the incarcerated parent simply needs to apologize to the child for the upset and upheaval that s/he has caused. They need to ask the child to forgive and to be a partner in rebuilding their lives. It takes courage to have these conversations. It means risking anger and rejection. It means admitting causing pain to those you love.”
Can I hear a collected AMEN!! I sincerely hope Joe and Teresa have had this conversation with their girls, and if not yet, NOW. The paragraph goes on to encourage other adults in the children’s lives to support the ongoing relationship with the prisoner, with the hopes of building honesty, which leads to healthy bonding. Another concern is how the child copes with separating from the parent after a visit, and the critical need for reassurance to thwart the deep feelings of distress that ‘abandoning’ a parent in prison can bring. Once again, honesty is emphasized.
“Answer the question, “Are you OK?” such as “I am not OK in here but I can certainly handle it”, or “I am OK in some ways. I have a bed and food and books to read. But I am not OK because prison is not a good place to be. And most of all I can’t be with you” balance the truth with some reassurance that the parent misses the child and is not in severe danger.”
As Teresa officially changes her address tomorrow, I sincerely hope that a common sense approach such as this is implemented. These girls deserve every chance to come through this family trauma in one piece. I will end with one last hopeful excerpt from this lengthy, but helpful guide.
“Prison may not be the best place to improve one’s parenting, but it has been done. There is growing interest in starting and expanding programs to help prisoners learn the skills of parenting.”