Many children and young people will experience a parent or family member going to prison. It is estimated that 20,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment in any year (Scottish Government, 2017).
This can be a very difficult time for children and young people and reactions will vary depending on their age and stage of development. Because each situation is unique, and so are the children and young people, their behavioural and emotional changes are also very varied. The impact of having a parent or family member in prison is similar to bereavement or parental separation.
Children and young people may feel:
It is also not unusual for there to be changes in the child or young person's behaviour, for example bedwetting or temper tantrums.
The child or young person will want to know where their parent is and why. It is best to talk to them and get things out into the open as soon as possible, as they might feel more anxious or confused if they don’t know what is happening.
It is not always necessary or helpful to give them details of the crime committed. Many children or young people can accept the explanation that their parent has gone to prison because a court decided they had done something wrong. What you say to them will depend on their age and the nature of the crime - you will need to use your best judgment.
As well as having to adjust to the situation, the child or young person may also become aware of gossip about their parent being in prison and may be judged, teased or bullied.
The child or young person may choose to talk to a different family member or teacher about the situation, if they are worried they might cause upset within their immediate family.
The reactions of children and young people in this situation may cause a great deal of concern, and some families feel they should get extra help immediately. However, with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope and learn to deal with all the changes.
How you think and feel about the circumstances of the imprisonment will affect how you respond to the child or young person. Your experience of this situation, or how others have coped with similar situations, may also impact your response. To best support the child or young person, it is important to respond to them and their unique circumstances. If you are also affected by the situation, make sure you talk to someone if you need support.
In 2018, the Council of Europe issued new guidelines to ensure that children with parents in prison have the same rights as other children, including regular contact with their parents where appropriate (for more information, see: www.familiesoutside.org.uk/news-release-27000-children-in-scotland-are-given-new-rights).
However, in some cases it will not be appropriate for a child or young person to have contact with a parent in prison, especially if there is a risk of harm to them. This will need to be explained to the child or young person.
Some ways that they can keep in touch with and feel connected to the person in prison are:
Visiting the parent in prison can help children and young people cope with separation. They can visit with a family member or other trusted adult if their other parent doesn't feel able to take them.
For more information about what to expect, see:
Some children and young people may not want to visit, and they should not be forced. Talking to them about why they feel that way is important and may help to reassure them.
Remember that with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope with having a parent in prison. However you might also want to consider extra help or support:
Families Outside, providing support, videos and helpline:
Scottish Prison Service, information and support for families:
Please contact your health visitor, school, GP or other professional involved with your family.
Please consult with other professionals involved or the named person, and to help identify the most appropriate support, go to: www.nhsfife.org/choosingtherightsupport
Acknowledgements are given to Barnardo’s (Northern Ireland) and Families Outside for the information on this page.