When a parent goes to prison, it can be a very difficult time for children and young people. The impact of imprisonment has been shown to be similar to that of bereavement, loss and separation.
Children will need to be supported by the people around them. They will need to feel safe and secure, to be able to ask questions, to be given clear, simple information and to talk about how they are feeling.
A child whose parent is in prison may feel:
- Worried that their other parent will be taken away too.
- Angry with their parent for leaving them, or with the authorities for taking them away.
- Embarrassed by what their friends will think or say.
- Afraid or confused about what will happen next.
- Afraid to ask questions or talk about their parent.
- Sad that the family has changed.
- Grief because they are missing their parent and all the things their parent did for and with them.
- Guilty in case they have been to blame somehow.
- Ashamed about why their parent is in prison.
- Burdened if they have to keep the imprisonment a secret.
- Worthless - low self-worth often follows on from these other feelings.
Many children will have the experience of a parent going to prison. About 7,600 children in Scotland every day have a parent in prison (estimate calculated from figures given by the Scottish Prison Service in 2011).
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This is likely to be a very difficult time for children. They will want to know where their parent is and why.
Adults often try to protect children from things they think will upset or distress them. However, children need to be given information and to be included. It is best to get things out into the open as soon as possible. Children can feel more anxious or confused if they don’t know what is happening.
It is not always necessary or helpful to give children details of the crime committed. Many children can accept the explanation that their parent has gone to prison because a court decided they had done something wrong. What you say to the child will depend on the child's age and the nature of the crime committed - you will need to use your best judgment.
There may be changes in the child's behaviour. This is likely to be because they are trying to deal with the many different feelings, as listed in the section above. Other behaviours such as bedwetting or temper tantrums may occur. The child may find it difficult to concentrate at school.
If other people come to learn of the situation, the child may become aware of gossip or may experience people saying or doing things that upset them, including bullying.
The child may not want to cause more upset by sharing their own worries and fears with their immediate family. It may therefore be helpful for the child to talk to a different family member or a school teacher
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Your own moral attitudes and your feelings about the circumstances of the imprisonment will influence your views on this situation. Also, any of your own experiences will have a bearing on how you respond. Being aware of your feelings and responding to the individual child and their specific response is the best way to be helpful.
For more information, see section on being aware of yourself and your own response.
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- Listen to the child, offer reassurance and try to understand things from their point of view. Children need to feel that they are listened to and understood.
- Be supportive, encouraging and empathic, without asking too many probing or detailed questions.
- The child may feel they have done something wrong and that this is why their parent has gone away. If this is the case, they need to be told clearly that it is not their fault.
- Answer any questions as honestly as possible, in a way that makes sense to the child.
- Encourage the child to talk about their parent.
- If the child is upset by things that other people have said about the situation, or if they are being bullied, support them by reassuring them that they have done nothing wrong.
- Try to keep things as normal as possible.
- If you are not a school staff member, suggest that the school be informed of the situation, so that they can support the child.
As far as possible, children should try to stay in contact with their parent while in prison. Visiting the parent is one way of keeping in touch, and this can help children cope with separation (see section below on preparing children for a visit). The child can visit with another family member or friend if their parent doesn't feel able to take them.
Note: In some cases it will not be appropriate for a child to have contact with a parent in prison, especially if there is a risk of harm to the child. This will need to be explained to the child.
There are other ways a child can keep in touch with their parent:
- Telephone calls - arrange a time beforehand to make sure the child is there to speak to the parent on the phone. (Note: prisoners cannot receive incoming calls, so the prisoner will have to ring the child).
- Letters – encourage the child or young person to write letters to their parent. (Note: prisoners have no internet access. While some prisons accept incoming e-mails for prisoners, prisoners cannot reply by e-mail).
- Pictures/drawings – younger children could draw a picture and post it to their parent.
- Scrap book – encourage children to keep a scrapbook of things they want to share with their parent when they get home, e.g. photos, schoolwork, pictures, or they may want to use it as a way of expressing their feelings.
It is important that children are prepared for a prison visit, especially if it’s their first time. Prisons can be frightening places. Talking to the child about the journey and what it will be like when they arrive at the prison may help. Some children may not want to visit, and they should not be forced, but talking to them about why they feel that way is important and may help to reassure them. Explaining what will happen when they arrive may help to ease some of their worries. For example:
- They may have to wait for a while.
- There will be security procedures, and visitors may be searched. This might include the use of sniffer dogs.
- There will be a lot of people in uniform.
- There will be a lot of other people visiting.
- Visit rooms can sometimes be noisy and busy places, without much privacy.
- The prisoner may not be able to leave his or her chair and will have to stay behind when the child leaves.
- Tell the child how long the visit will last. Visits are different at each prison, and the length of the visit can vary.
- Take time to settle the child when you arrive in the visit room.
- Try to make sure the child gets special attention during the visit.
- The time may go very quickly, and the child might find it very difficult to leave their parent at the end. The child may need reassurance about the next time they can be in touch, perhaps by another visit, telephone or letter. Planning when and how that will happen is important.
- Let the child know that it is OK to show or to talk about how they are feeling at or after the visit.
- It is likely that after a visit everyone will be a bit tired and may feel stressed. The child may be feeling sad that they’ve had to leave their parent behind. They may feel angry if the visit wasn’t as they expected.
- It is important that you allow the child time to talk about what’s happened. Don’t worry if they are upset. Try to see this as a healthy way of expressing feelings rather than having to bottle it all up inside.
- Pay attention to the child's behaviour after the visit. If it is different or unusual for them, it may be their way of letting you know they need you to listen to them.
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The reactions of children and young people in this situation may cause a great deal of concern, and some families feel they should get specialist help immediately. However, with the right support from the people around them, most children will be able to cope and learn to deal with all the changes.
However, if you feel they are not coping with what’s going on, you may want to consider extra help or support for them. For example:
- The child's health visitor or GP may be able to suggest who to contact for specific advice.
- It may also be helpful to talk to the child's school about what support is available there.
- If the specific behaviour that the child or young person is showing is very extreme, or occurs together with other worrying behaviours.
- If your attempt to help the child or young person has uncovered issues that you are inexperienced in dealing with.
You should get in touch with your local health centre or hospital to obtain a contact number for the appropriate children and young people's mental health specialists.
Remember - you can contact your local mental health specialists for a number of reasons, for example:
- For advice on how to make a referral about a named child.
- For advice about whether or not to make a referral (it is normal practice to seek this advice without naming the child in the first instance).
- For advice about what to do (once again there should be no necessity to name the child).
By not naming the child you are protecting their right to confidentiality. This method of seeking advice also has the advantage that you do not need to get anyone’s consent in advance of your contact phone call.
Acknowledgements are given to Barnardo’s, Northern Ireland, and Families Outside for the information on this topic page.