What do I tell the children?

Parent and child

A huge concern around the imprisonment of a family member is whether to tell the children or not.

Sooner or later all children are very likely to find out the truth, depending on their age, from other children at school, overhearing adult conversations, beginning to read signs at the prison or picking up on adult emotions.

He was having nightmares about his Dad. When we got to the bottom of it, we discovered that just before he was sent to prison his Dad had taken him to see a film about Robin Hood. The poor little lad thought his Dad was chained to a green slimy wall with rats biting his feet, and a jailer throwing in chunks of mouldy bread!

(Headteacher of primary school)

The absence of a family member is often explained by saying they are at work or in hospital. However, more and more frequently, children can gain access to anything online. As soon as they can read, a child can search for information about their parent in prison. A lack of basic information about what has happened can cause extra anxiety and fear in a child.

As time passes, it may become more difficult for a parent or carer to raise the issue and so the deception continues. Generally, Ormiston Families recommends that adults tell children what is happening at the earliest possible stage. This must always be appropriate to the age of the child, with particular concern around serious, violent or sex offences.

Choosing the right words can be difficult. In the end, when, how and whether to tell a child is always up to each individual family:

My 16-year-old knows nothing about the offence - she knows what he was accused of, but no detail. My 5-year-old knows where he is, from visiting, but has not been told about the offence, she's too young to understand.

(Mother, partner serving sentence for serious sex offences)

If carers can find it so hard to talk to their children, how much more difficult is it for them to talk to a professional person who could provide support to the family? Always keep in mind that someone you're working with might be in this situation.

Sesame Street has produced a short (and very American!) film for young children about the 'incarceration' of a parent:

Telling them too much

Sometimes a parent with no-one else to talk to will discuss their partner's offending behaviour with their child. This can be very disturbing for a child if they are too young to understand the nature of the offence. In some cases this could lead to inappropriate behaviour:

We found Mum had told her daughter in detail about her father (found guilty of rape). The daughter then told everyone in her class. Not only was this totally inappropriate, but meant that her friends, who had been sticking by her, all deserted her and she was completely isolated and the subject of gossip.

(Class teacher of 11-year-old)

Falling wall