Teen Guide to Living with Incarcerated Parents

#LeadYoung Spotlight: 16-Year-Old Author Anyé Young Shares Tips for Living with an Incarcerated Parent

August 27, 2018

More than 2 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. Anyé Young is one. A 16-year-old activist living in Washington, D.C. Anyé recently published her first book, Teen Guide to Living With Incarcerated Parents. Designed for children and teens with incarcerated parents, the book offers a glimpse into what goes on in the mind of a young person with a parent in prison.

Anyé says she has experienced a wave of changing emotions since her father was sentenced six years ago. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence in North Carolina.

We spoke with Anyé and her mother LaDànaDrigo. 

What inspired you to start writing and publish this book at such a young age?

Anyé: I took a look around and came to the realization that there was a pattern in my family with crime. My dad’s dad was incarcerated, my dad’s brother was incarcerated, and my brother, who’s my dad’s son, was incarcerated as well.

I saw that pattern and it was frustrating to me because I felt like I was also destined for that. It made me feel like there was no hope for me, because I’m seeing the people around me follow in the same footsteps as their parents.

That prompted me to write the book. I wanted to do something for kids out there, because I would have wanted that to be done for me. I would have wanted that: knowing there was someone else in the nation or the world who was going through the same thing would have really helped me through that process.

You were 10 when your father went to prison. How has your father’s incarceration influenced your life?

Anyé: Having a parent in prison has been really a rough ride. Every kid needs both of their parents in their life no matter what they say. At first, I felt very alone. I felt like I was the only one going through it. I felt like no one would understand me. I felt very angry with my father, and sad. I felt a lot of anxiety. I also went through feeling abandonment, and I had to get through that. That was very hard to overcome.

For my mom, she has had to take up both roles – being both a mother and a father, and that’s very stressful on her. Not being able to spend as much time as I’d like with my dad in person has been really hard. It still is hard to deal with that and accept that, but I feel like my mom has helped me through it. She pushes me to be better. She really does push me to seek success in life, and that ambition is what I get from her.

You’re very active in your community. Has that helped you heal from all of this grief, pain and anger that you describe? What advice or guidance would you offer to teens and young people who are just at the beginning of that journey?

Anyé: I would tell them to look to whoever is taking care of them, whoever is there for them and to just find a way to get comfortable with that person and open up to them because you can’t just bottle everything in, because you’re going to go on in life angry at the world and angry about the little things and you don’t even know why. I would also tell them to just not be afraid to try because you do miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. You do. So you’re not going to regret trying to put yourself out there but you are going to regret saying, “Oh man I wish I had tried harder or gone to college or tried things.”

I also learned that it’s better to talk to someone sooner rather than later.

How did loved ones around you help you cope and find the creative outlets you needed?

Anyé: My mom definitely pushed me to try new things. She pushed me to try taking video production in high school, which I didn’t really see myself taking. I was just going to go for theater but my mom told me, “You should take this class.” She was strongly suggesting it so I said, ‘Okay.”

And I ended up loving the class. Within the first two weeks, I fell in love with video production and everything that has to do with media, what you can do and how you can change the perspective of an audience through visuals, you know? And I’m still doing that now, I’m very involved in video production.

Has the experience of having a parent in prison changed the way you look at our justice system? If so, how? Do you consider yourself an advocate?

Anyé: I definitely consider myself an advocate for prison reform. When I heard about my dad’s sentence and the amount of years he was given, I was like, “What?!” He was given 12 years. And I was sitting here thinking, “Why? Why so much time?” Also just looking at things from his perspective, he’s been given a 12-year sentence and on top of that, he won’t have the right to vote, and when he gets out he’s not really going to be welcomed back into society. He’s going to be in a subgroup of society that we know is there but we don’t really acknowledge, and he’s going to have a hard time finding a job. When you’ve been convicted of a felony, you’re thrown into a different pool of people.

What do you wish other young people knew about the justice system?

Anyé: I want them to know that they shouldn’t be punished for their parent’s crime. I also want them to know that our justice system does need reform, and it does need to change. And if they believe in something, they should just stand up for what they believe in and not be afraid to use their voice because we all have a voice. I want them to know we all have a voice, that’s why I’m using mine, and they should use theirs as well.

LaDàna, what advice would you have for other parents and family members trying to help a young child cope with the incarceration of a parent? What are some of the daily issues and solutions you’ve uncovered?

LaDàna: As far as daily issues and solutions, I would just say to talk to your child and keep the line of communication open, and to pay attention so that if something comes up in your child’s day-to-day routine, you catch it before it goes any further. I’ve seen a lot of kids when they’re going through things, they don’t know how to process it. They act out in school or kind of shut down in school. It’s one or the other. We have to pay attention to that.

As far as long-term support, you should encourage your child. I’ve encouraged Anyé to be empowered and to get involved in things in the community. I don’t see that as a distraction. Some people might. But I think it’s more along the lines of helping a child appreciate what they do have, because there’s no way to compensate for what they don’t have, which is that other parent.

How can allies and people who have never experienced incarceration or had a family member or loved one experience it understand and help to uplift the voices of people who have experiences with it?

LaDàna: For me, this is something my daughter and I have discussed. We’ve reached out and sent e-mails to tell people that we’re available to speak at conferences and special events and do book readings so that we can keep the conversations going. I think the biggest issue as far as I can see is that people don’t recognize it as an issue. They sweep it under the rug.

Anyé: They do. I would say we should involve people who are in this circumstance to speak up because when they speak up, they help people understand. If you’re not going through it, you can still try to understand it – and I think people should. Even if it’s not you directly, this issue affects more people than many of us realize.

LaDàna: We need more platforms. And there actually are a lot of platforms that are out there, so when I say we need more platforms, I mean we need more events. I’m in PR (public relations), and so I know that in order to garner awareness and to market or promote an idea it, you have to bring people together and promote conversations. So even if you have a nonprofit that’s helping kids with incarcerated parents but you’re not having enough events so that you can highlight the voices and experiences of the kids and parents, and make space for them to converse and work with one another, then you’ll miss opportunities.

How have you practiced self-care to deal with your (Anyé’s) father’s incarceration?

LaDàna: That’s a good question. For me, I concentrate on my daughter, because of course I think about it and it affects both of us but we can’t do anything about it on our own. There would have to be serious prison reform. So I put my energy into focusing on her and making sure that she learns how to be resilient, outspoken and confident. I feel like those are the tools she’s going to need when faced with any challenge as she’s growing up.

Anyé: The way I deal with it is I definitely always try to get myself involved in my community whether it’s inside of school or outside. I do volunteer work, and then inside of school I’ve done cheerleading for two years, I do the school news every week, so I do make efforts to be as involved as I can in the outside world because I can’t just, you know, wallow in a room by myself. It’s not healthy.

Are you saying that you gave yourself space to process the grief and pain and now you’re in a place where you don’t want to let that overwhelm you or take up your time or energy?

Anyé: Exactly.

What kinds of creative outlets have you find to cope and help you emotionally process things?

Anyé: I have several creative outlets. I’m pursuing a certificate and am also going to major in video production, and that’s how I express my creativity, through the projects I create, the videography I produce. I also get involved in plays in school and express myself through theater. I challenge myself and channel real emotions and perform, and that’s how I use my creative outlets.

If there’s one piece of advice you could offer to young people trying to cope with a loved one or family member experiencing incarceration, what would it be?

Anyé: I would tell them to go out and experience the world. Get involved. Always be involved in the outside world. Don’t shut people out.


After her book was released in June 2018, Anyé pledged her support for USDreamAcademy.org, a nonprofit that empowers children most at risk of incarceration by offering academic, social and values enrichment, and recommends checking the organization out. For more information or to get in touch with Anyé Young or LaDàna Drigo, you can contact info@AbovePrestigePR.com. To purchase the book, visit your local library or find it here.

SparkAction’s #LeadYoung series spotlights young advocates and changemakers, sharing their perspectives and lessons in their own words.

Elly Belle is a communications strategist and writer with a passion for youth empowerment, advocacy, culture and media. Elly is most passionate about youth development, reproductive health, mental health, advocacy for the LGBTQIA community, immigration, and advocacy for sexual assault survivors—and she's written about all of it and more for outlets like Bust and Teen Vogue, where she's a regular contributor. She has worked for organizations focused on social change and human rights such as The Fresh Air Fund, Camino Public Relations, and PEN America. Elly holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Religion from Hofstra University, where she first found and honed her passion for advocacy.

In her spare time, Elly enjoys drinking intense amounts of coffee while attempting to read five books at once, and most enjoys exploring everything New York City and its boroughs have to offer, including going to spoken word poetry shows, literary events, and museums. She also gets a kick out of cooking new recipes and pretending she's competing on a Food Network show.