Navigating High School and Late Childhood with an Incarcerated Loved One

If only I could just turn back the clock and tell small Chelsea what she dreamed of knowing. She would hate me because my answers are nothing she wanted to hear. It’s humorous to me that at this place in my life I thought there’d be no way of surviving for ten years. Hell, I think I genuinely thought it’d only last for three years max. So many days and nights were consumed with praying to my Christian God to “just please end this nightmare or give me the courage to end it”. I just knew I couldn’t make it beyond the immediate now. With each passing day, the brother I knew on the outside was quickly fading.

Although it was just the beginning, my freshman or ninth year was the easiest. It was the beginning so there was still hope. There was hope that one day, soon, he would be home. He would be home and unchanged. Not only was my hope holding strong, I was still in the beginning stages of shock. From this moment forward, everything about my life would be different. My personality, my character would be different. I would carry myself differently.

Growing up, the only time we were in school together was in elementary school. I was in kindergarten and he was in fifth grade. My brother is five years older than me, but there were still older kids between our classes that knew him. There were teachers that knew him. Going to band practice was one thing, but how could I ever walk inside that school during normal hours? How many times could I possibly hear “HEY! Aren’t you Zach’s little sister? I can’t believe everything that’s going on. How is he doing?” I’ll never forget the first phone call I received from a few “friends”. Unfortunately, I could recognize their voices.

*Me, half asleep at like ten because I had fallen asleep due to “arrest day” being the longest day of my life*
*Answering Phone, attempting to see the time sleepy eyed*
Me: h-hello 
*Half-asleep, forgetting what’s happened that day*
Me: What? He’s in Kentucky? Why?
*Hanging up, I immediately realized…they were right*

Upon hanging up, I realized this would be my new reality. Why couldn’t anyone understand that I didn’t want to talk about this? Aside from a few close friends, I didn’t tell anyone, so I just couldn’t understand why everyone kept asking me about him. I’ll never forget the girl screaming in the middle of class (one of the only classes I had with upperclassmen) “HEY AREN’T YOU ZACH’S LITTLE SISTER? HOW IS HE? WHAT HAPPENED?” I’ll never forget the girl asking me this question with such genuine entitlement. Asking me this question as though I owed her an answer. These things happening only gave me one mission – complete this four year phase of my life as quick as possible. Completely unrealistic, I even questioned if I could graduate as early as sixteen. LOL!

I couldn’t handle the pressure of being recognized as an inmate’s sister. It felt like I was incarcerated by association. I guess in some ways, I was. Most days, the only thing that got me through freshman year was my anticipation to get to band class. I would cling to any and all music. Music was the only thing I had during this time in my life. I relied on these three hours. See, with everything going on at home, school quickly became too much. With all the brain power I used at home, I just didn’t have any left for school. I spent my time at home calculating potential prison sentences, so by the time I made it to school I couldn’t calculate algebra.

Within the first year, I truly expected things to resolve themselves. I didn’t really begin struggling with the incarceration until we were between 2.5-3.5 years. In total, my brother served in jail for four years pretrial. About 5 years in total until sentencing. Once we hit the 2.5 year mark, about halfway through my sophomore, tenth, year of high school things really began to go downhill for me. On the outside, I had so many loving people surrounding me – friends, family, extended family, family friends, caring teachers. There were so many people willing to offer love, but I had no idea how to let them in. I avoided friends, because I couldn’t miss visitation days. Even more, what would my friend’s parent think? I avoided getting too close to anyone in anticipation of the judgement their parents would pass down to my family. If I didn’t get too close, it wouldn’t hurt as bad when their parents decided they couldn’t see me anymore because they (understandably) didn’t want their child around the madness. This life isn’t for everyone. At some point during this time, I got the shingles virus. Although the trigger isn’t known, my doctor and I wrote it up to stress. I think I missed about three weeks of school. Graduation was quickly approaching (I mean, two years flew by like that), so on the inside, I truly began struggling with the idea of moving forward in my life if my brother couldn’t do the same with his. I hated everything. And how dare my mom tell me to pray. How dare she ask me to pray to the very God that allowed this to destroy me? My mom began clinging so viciously to her religion, I would wait for her fingers to bleed from turning bible pages.

Around four years, it became physically visible what the stress had done to my parents, so I quickly took on the “primary caregiver” role to alleviate as much stress as I could. I began missing school for court hearings, lawyer appointments, etc. The best part – graduation was approaching so I wouldn’t need to worry about the responsibility of school, or so I thought. I quickly became torn about the the thought of college. If I followed the “normal” path, leaving for school, who would be there for my brother? Who would be in the court room waiting for him? Who would be in the waiting room waiting to visit? Who would be there? This was not an option. I fought for my brother for four and a half years, I would not stop any time soon. I was all he had, and I couldn’t let him down. It makes me laugh now, but I hated myself for even considering leaving. Without the responsibility of school, I quickly began working as many hours as I possibly could to support us. My adult life is a separate post…stay tuned 😉

Growing through my experience into an adult, there are so many things I wish I could tell my younger self. Writing this post, I tried putting myself in that 14 year old’s shoes again. I tried placing myself in some of the darkest years of my life. When I look back, I think of the credit I failed to give myself. I wanted to be everything. I wanted to be this over achieving high school student while also supporting my incarcerated loved one. Looking back as an adult, I think it’s amazing how that innocent, childish, naive 14 year old girl survived. I say it in such a way, because I’m a completely different person now. I learned to grow through my experience, channel the negativity into positive in various aspects of my life. I can’t wait to share more about doing exactly this and how I learned to do this.

Of course this isn’t everything from this time in my life, but this generally covers what it was like to be in school and late childhood with an incarcerated loved one. Thank you for reading a little about this dark time in my life. It’s been one of the hardest experiences of my life, especially to share with such vulnerability, but I hope my story can help others in their time of need.


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2007, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison, an increase of almost 80 percent since 1991. The negative consequences for children with an incarcerated parent can be substantial, including financial instability, changes in family structure, shame, and social stigma. However, research also shows that supporting healthy and positive relationships between these vulnerable children, who are the innocent bystanders of adult decisions, and their families has the potential to mitigate negative outcomes.

Please click here to learn more information similar to this above concerning children of incarcerated parents.

4 thoughts on “Navigating High School and Late Childhood with an Incarcerated Loved One

  1. Hey! I wanted to tell you the font is TOO SMALL, very hard to read. It discourages reading.
    I send you a lot of love to go through what you’re living. And a lot of love to your loved one.

    Liked by 1 person

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