Impact of imprisonment on children




The imprisonment of a parent, carer or significant family member is likely to bring major practical and emotional upheaval in a child's life.

My Dad never thought that when he did what he did and went to prison he was breaking my Mum's heart and robbing me of my childhood.

(Prisoner's daughter, aged 14)

After the problems with my son's behaviour, I spoke to his headteacher on the phone. I asked her how a bereaved child would be treated in her school. Schools need to know how to deal with imprisonment.

(Female prisoner serving a life sentence)

Coping with loss

In this podcast from the Backstory series, Harvey describes what it was like, at the age of 7, to lose his father to imprisonmnent:

In the following quotes children affected by imprisonment describe their feelings of loss:

Losing Dad

I miss my Dad so, so much. My Nan is great but she can't be him. He made me laugh a lot whenever I felt sad. Now I am sad a lot.
(Prisoner's daughter, aged 8)

Losing Mum

Both boys have refused to see their mother because they've been let down so many times.
(Father speaking about partner now out of prison and undergoing drug rehabilitation)

Losing a sibling

I miss my brother very much. When he went to prison, my Mum stopped talking about him. Now I can't go out a lot as he took me to the park and out playing. It made everyone very angry when he went.
(Prisoner's brother, aged 9)

Major changes

As well as the emotional trauma of losing a loved-one through imprisonment, the affected child may be experiencing a whole host of other major life changes:

The emotional impact

The imprisonment of a family member can seem much like bereavement to a child. Their parent or sibling is suddenly missing. They are often surrounded by anger, grief and confusion in the family.

Adults are quite obviously concealing a lot from them. However, when a death occurs in the family this is not just acknowledged but talked about and celebrated, at the same time as the family is facing the pain and loss. The absence of a family member through imprisonment is often accompanied by shame, stigma and silence.

Children and young people grieve just as much as adults but they show it in different ways. They learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief. Children have a limited ability to put feelings, thoughts and memories into words and tend to act out with behaviours rather than express themselves verbally. A family member showing grief will encourage them to express theirs. A child's behaviour is a good guide to how they are coping, and this is as true for a very young child as it is for a teenager.

The emotional turmoil following the loss of someone close can be expressed in many ways:

Impact on behaviour

Children's feelings are often internalised because of the stigma suffered by the families of prisoners. Children may have been told not to tell anyone - or they have decided themselves they do not want anyone outside the family to know. The most likely symptoms of anxiety in these children are:

The behaviour of a child or young person who has a parent in prison may change when significant events are due. These events might include:

If a school, an agency working with the family, or out-of-school organisation the child attends are aware of a child's home circumstances, it is easier to prepare for possible behavioural changes associated with this event.

Potential for bullying

Bullying is an abuse of power and is often a significant issue for the children of offenders. Fear that their child may be bullied can mean that families try to maintain secrecy about their circumstances. About one fifth of children in a study (Sentenced Families, Ormiston 2004) about the impact of imprisonment said they had experienced bullying. Others said they feared being bullied if they talked openly about their situation.

Bullying behaviour can include:

A child with a parent in prison may also be bullying other children. The child will find it very difficult to talk if those responsible do not know their circumstances.

Children bully because they:

The story was on the front page of the paper and everyone knew in school.

(Child of prisoner)

Sometimes they say I'm just like my Mum and that makes me mad.

(Child of prisoner)

Positive exceptions

Sometimes imprisonment of a parent or sibling can bring benefits to a child's life. For some, it will bring a chance to enjoy a period of calm and stability at home. However, the fears and associated behaviours can resurface whenever the child visits the prisoner and as the release date approaches. Also, a child may actually feel guilty because they are feeling happier during the period of imprisonment of their family member.

What prisoners' children need from their parents

The list of quotes below comes from a university study of children affected by imprisonment:

I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don't stay involved, I feel like I'm not important and that you don't really love me.

Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty

I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.

When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don't say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side

Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my Mum and Dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.

Ormiston Families' Breaking Barriers service

Ormiston's Breaking Barriers outreach workers provide one-to-one support, at home, school and in the community, for children and young people (aged 5-16) affected by the imprisonment of a family member.

Visit our main website to find out more, or make a referral, or watch a short film about Breaking Barriers:

Falling wall