Should I tell a child when a close relative goes to prison?

One of the difficult decisions you may face when someone is imprisoned is what to tell the children. This is your decision but it is widely acknowledged that children cope better when you are honest with them about what has taken place and where their loved one has gone. A sudden disappearance without explanation can leave a child confused and scared as they can often sense when something has happened. A child who is not told where their relative is may worry and imagine things which may be much worse. This might be especially true when the adults around them are upset or angry. Children can often internalise their feelings which can result in nightmares, tantrums and withdrawal from others. There is also the danger that they will find out some other way. By being open and honest with your child you will show them that it is ok to ask questions and talk about how they feel.

Could I not just say that the relative is working away?

If you lie to the child and tell them their relative is working away, is on holiday or in hospital then there is the real possibility that they will find out the truth some other way, especially if the case was high profile or appeared in the local paper. If you plan to take the child to visit their relative in prison but intend to inform them that they are visiting mum/dad/sibling’s workplace then there is real potential that other people will reveal to the child that they are in fact visiting a prison. This in itself can lead to further worry for the child, as they may think you don’t know and further internalise their feelings in order to protect you from the truth.

When is a good time to tell a child that their relative has gone to prison?

There is no right time to tell a child that someone they love has gone to prison. You may find you have time to prepare for the eventuality if legal advice has indicated that a custodial sentence is likely, or you may have to make your decision quickly if the arrest was sudden and bail refused in court. You should aim to tell the child when you have plenty of time to answer questions and offer comfort at a time when you will not be disturbed.

It can be useful to plan some of what you are going to say – each child is different and you are the best judge of when and how they should be told. If you have more than one child you will need to tell them all, but in a way that each understands.

How do I tell the child?

When you are telling a child about the imprisonment of a close relative it is important to keep it simple and age appropriate. Children may need reassurance that the missing family member still loves and cares for them. They may need to know that it is not their fault that their relative has gone away and they should also be told the duration of the absence where possible. You can assure the child that their relative is not a bad person, even if they have done something wrong. You can also talk about the contact they could still have with their relative and what this might include for example, letters, telephone calls and visits.

Once you have told the child it is important to let them know that you are there to listen to them and support them as and when they need you. Understand that they may not ask questions at first as they might need time to digest and rationalise the information they have been given.

Your child’s emotional and mental wellbeing

The imprisonment of a parent or carer can have a huge impact on a child in practical terms but also emotionally. They may have witnessed an arrest which can be a frightening and confusing experience. They suddenly have to cope with the absence of a parent or relative, as well as changes in family life, possibly moving home or school, financial changes or even changes in who looks after them.

Your child may think it is somehow their fault that their loved one is in prison, feel angry or ashamed. In some circumstances, they may feel relieved, especially if the person was aggressive or was the cause of a chaotic family lifestyle.

Having a parent or close relative in prison may lead to a change in your child’s behaviour, such as hyperactivity, anxiety, becoming withdrawn and shy or depression. Children affected by having a parent in prison are more likely to experience mental health issues and have lower self-esteem.

The emotional and physical reactions to the loss of a parent to prison have been likened to the grief felt when a parent dies. However, family members and the community may not offer the same sympathetic or supportive response, so children often do not have the opportunity to deal with or understand these emotions which can lead to mental health issues.

Children say they want to be able to talk to someone about it to help them understand what has happened and will happen, when they can see their parent or carer, and to help them understand conflicting feelings, such as understanding that their parent may have done something wrong but also loving them.

How young people can feel when a relative is in prison

Many children feel unable to talk to someone about this, it could be that as a family you have not told anyone so they can’t talk to anyone at school. Or they may feel that it is too difficult to talk about at home.

The toll on emotional and mental health can be immense. They may experience low self-esteem, isolation and loneliness. Children of imprisoned parents are up to three times as likely as other children to experience mental health problems. It is natural under the circumstances for them to feel ashamed or angry. They may feel cheated, upset and confused. Try to encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling so they don’t bottle any of these emotions up.

Very young children

Babies and young children will obviously not be able to understand what has happened, but you can still talk to them about Mum/Dad and about seeing them. As they begin to understand more you can talk about what has happened, using simple words.

After you have told your child, the most important thing is to listen to them. If they don’t want to talk about it don’t force them. Offer reassurance and let them know that you are there for them.

It may be helpful for your child to have a second person who they feel they can trust – a relative, friend or teacher. There may be things that they feel unable to tell you straight away – perhaps because they are worried that it will upset you.

Will I have to tell the child’s school?

You do not need to tell anyone about the imprisonment of a close relative if you do not want to. No one is automatically notified that a child has a parent or a sibling in prison. However, it might be a good idea to inform the child’s school so they can be alert to any changes in the child’s behaviour and their need for extra support.

Additionally, schools may authorise a child’s absence in order for them to visit a parent in prison but only if they are aware that this is the case.

Will Social Services get involved if I tell the school?

No. Social Services do not need to be involved with a family purely because a relative is in prison. The only time Social Services would need to be in contact with the family is if the child is at risk of harm.

What if my child is bullied?

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to stop other people from knowing about your situation, especially if it has been reported in the press. This may mean that other people say or do things that upset you or your child. It is important that your child knows that they have people to turn to for support, reassurance and comfort. This can include you, their teacher and other close relatives or trusted friends. For more advice about bullying, visit Bullying UK, part of Family Lives

If you need someone to talk to, please call us on 0808 808 2003.

Should I take my child on a visit?

Allowing a child to visit their relative in prison can be an important step in helping them come to terms with the situation. It will enable the child to understand that their relative still loves and cares for them and that they are safe.

It may be a good idea for you to visit the prison without the child at first. This will help you to understand the visits process and better prepare you for answering any questions the child may have before the visit. By doing this you will be able to establish what facilities there are for children, how much contact they can have with their relative and if there are any special visits offered that allow more contact. It may be that you decide that you do not want to take the child to visit the prison. This is your decision to make and you should not feel under any pressure from others to change your mind if your decision is made in the best interest of the child.

What happens if my child does not want to visit?

Some children may decide that they do not want to visit their relative in prison. You should not force the child to visit if they do not want to but it is important to talk to them about the decision they have made and for them to understand that they can change their mind at any time.

What if my child wants to visit but I do not?

If your child wants to visit their relative but you do not want to go with them, you can arrange for another adult to take them. This person must be over 18.

What should I tell them about the visit?

There will be a lot to explain about the prison visit, especially the first time. Sometimes prison visits can be very short (as little as half an hour for some remand prisoners) and the child should be prepared for this. The child will also need to know about the security measures in place for example searches, sniffer dogs, people in uniforms and doors being locked behind them.

End of the visit

The time may pass very quickly and leaving at the end of a visit can be very difficult. A child needs to know that they can keep in touch either through visits, telephone calls or by letter – planning when and how that will happen is important.

How will the child feel after the visit?

Children will react differently to visiting a prison. Some may take it in their stride whilst others may be upset. It is important to assure the child that what they are feeling is normal and that they can talk to you about their feelings whenever they need to.

You may see other changes in their behavior, which are more difficult to deal with. This is likely to be a sign that they are having to deal with many different feelings, sadness, frustration, helplessness and even anger. They may direct that anger at you, but that is because you are closest to them.

As a parent or relative facing a difficult and often unknown situation there may be times when you feel in need of support. If you do not have anyone close you feel you can turn to please telephone us on 0808 808 2003.

This page was updated on June 2020