Supporting Families When Their Loved One Comes Home

by Sue Badeau, Justice for Families

Coming home. Homecoming. Words and phrases that are fraught with emotion even at the best of times. When a loved one has been away from home for a significant length of time — whether it’s for work, college, or military service — returning home is ripe with high expectations, anxiety, and nearly palpable excitement. Everyone has changed. And yet in the midst of all this change is the unchanging and unchangeable love the family has for one another, a deep sense of belonging, shared history, and identity. Even in the best of times, homecomings can run off the rails at any moment as the exhaustion and angst accumulated during the loved one’s absence spill out in unintentional bursts of anger, impatience, or frustration.

With all that has been lost, all that has been taken, all that has been left unsaid during a loved one’s period of incarceration, re-entry can be even more challenging. Parents and family members have been living with their own fears, guilt, shame, confusion, and isolation for months or years, while their son, daughter, or other loved one has faced all of that plus the daily trauma inflicted upon them by the system itself. I am a member of one of those families, and in my role, as Director of Training and Technical Assistance at Justice for Families, I hear from many others daily. We are overwhelmed, in fight, flight, or freeze mode most of the time — unfocused, scared. It is harder to think, to problem-solve, or to remember your own self-care needs and remain present for family members and cope with the continuing demands of the system and community even after re-entry occurs.

What do families like ours need most to create a path for a successful homecoming for their loved one? What do these much loved, but highly traumatized young people need to successfully navigate life on the outside after a period on the inside? What do families do and where do they turn when they feel both powerless and hopeless? Will they be ready and capable of meeting everyone’s needs when the young person comes home? How can we keep everyone safe? What if… what if… what if…

These are but a few of the questions facing the families of young people returning home from youth detention or confinement in the adult penal system. At the core of our being, we want our children home more than anything, but we are also frightened and we need help navigating the next steps. Every family and every young person is different. We don’t all need the same things, but we all need support. After years of our own experiences and walking this path with thousands of other families around the country, here are our top five tips for how families, support networks, and communities can best support youth as they re-enter home and community life:

  1. Believe & Encourage — In spite of whatever has transpired before and during the period of family separation and youth detention, believe that they love one another and that the youth can and will be successful at home. Communicate this belief. Offer words of hope and encouragement. Demonstrate through your behavior that you see success ahead for this young person and family. With all of the negativity that these families face, more than anything they need a supportive family and community that offers genuine optimism, hope, and encouragement. There is abundant evidence that hope is key to improved physical and mental health and wellness, which is the foundation for all of the other steps necessary for successful re-entry.

  2. Offer Your Time — In times of crisis, stress, and trauma, the single most important thing that each young person and adult caregiver needs is at least one significant, trust-based relationship. Healing and safety take place in the context of relationships. Use your role to help youth and families stay connected — more, not less than before. Help them determine who in their extended family or community circle is most important for them to maintain or reestablish connections with. Assist them in figuring out strategies to keep these connections safe and frequent. Check-in often.

  3. Ask & Listen — What does the family believe they need to be successful? What are their concerns? Be sure to ask about the needs and role of other family members such as siblings or grandparents.

    As you ask, listen not just to the words given in response to your questions but the message behind the words and body language. Are they fearful? Uncertain? Reassure them that ambiguity is totally normal. Listen for, observe, and reflect back to the family the strengths you see as well as their concerns and any trauma triggers they anticipate.

  4. Offer Meaningful Concrete Support — Brainstorm with the parent and the young person to anticipate what will be the hardest time: Late at night? Mealtime? When something triggers a trauma response? Discuss and practice options for handling it. Always be sure that both the young person and the adult have a safety plan that includes both some at-home, in-the-moment self-care tools and at least, one trusted person who doesn’t live with them that they can call on for support. Offer concrete support and teach techniques — perhaps there was a specific breathing, journaling, artistic outlet, or physical exercise in the detention setting that the parent and youth can use successfully at home. Talk about how space will be used and what will make everyone safest. Discuss how to manage school expectations while reminding the caregiver that their relationship with their child will matter more than academic achievement at times like these.

    When you are offering support related to health, safety, nutrition, don’t just hand out a list of referrals. Provide information but don’t overwhelm or overload. Sometimes it can feel as if there are almost too many resources out there, but the reality is that not all of them are accessible to every family. Make calls together with the parent to introduce them to the referral source. Assist with transportation, translation, or childcare so a family can avail themselves of needed services. Families may also require documentation confirming the return of their child to help them to get food, housing, or other support related to basic needs. Assist families as they navigate the different systems they have to engage with such as the youth justice, child welfare, and mental health systems. They will often receive confusing or conflicting information or even requirements from these systems that will take patience, support, and advocacy to work through.

  5. Advocate and Invest — Preventing young people from going into systems such as child welfare and the justice system, supporting their successful return home, and ending the revolving door that leads them back into the system takes time, sustained advocacy at local, state, and national levels and substantial ongoing financial investments into the community to provide meaningful alternatives and pathways to success for every young person and every family. Don’t be afraid to stick your neck out, get involved, raise your voice. Stand up and show up.

Families can successfully care for their young people at home, but the stakes are high and the challenges are many. Concrete and trauma-responsive support, as outlined in this blog, can make a world of difference.