Parental incarceration: How to tell young children a parent is in jail or prison?

The children know he is gone but they aren’t sure where. Why doesn’t he come home or come to see them? When a parent gets locked up, letting children make their own assumptions is worse than  giving them honest information.  Left to their imagination they might come to believe the parent had died or made the decision to stop loving them and walked away. Here are some ways to let children know what really happened. 

Some details but not all: Children do not need to be burdened with knowing all the particulars about their parent’s case. What he was charged with, how long of a prison term he is facing and what the neighbors think about the situation are not things they need to be told. A simple, short, “The police think that daddy broke the law and for now he is in jail and can’t come home” is enough.  Let them know that he will see a judge and the court will decide whether he did it or not and then it will be determined what will happen.

Time out: The children are going to want to know what is happening. Compare it to time-out. Remind them that if they break the rules at home or school they have to go to time-out. Explain that adults have to obey rules, too, and if they break important rules – called laws – the judge can make them go to time-out, which is a jail. Assure them that children do not have to worry about going to jail. Jails and prisons are for adults and their punishment.

If he didn’t do it: This is the hardest concept for children to grasp. They think in very literal terms of right and wrong. If they begin to fixate on their belief that their parent didn’t do the crime he is charged with, handle it promptly to alleviate their stress. Ask if they have ever been put on time out for something they didn’t think was fair. For example, they didn’t do it, or they didn’t start it. Every child is going to have examples, because for children time out is never fair. Let them give you some examples and tell them it is the same with their parent. Even if he didn’t do it, he has been told by the court he has to go to jail – time out. And when the time out is over, he will be home.

Final thoughts: Children need to know their parent still loves them and will come to see them when he gets out of jail. Comparing it to time out allows them to grasp the situation in terms they understand.


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About Mark Miclette 682 Articles
writes about inmates, jails, prisons, courts and the lives of people who live and work within the United States Criminal Justice System. His mission can be summed up in a single word; transparency.