Children do not understand why they cannot see one of their parents if the adult is incarcerated, and they certainly cannot understand the legal reasons why their parent is in jail. The best way to explain this process to a child comes by making the situation very simple and uncomplicated.
When a family member goes to jail or prison, everyone involved will have a difficult time adjusting. Children, however, may have the most difficult time with the situation since they do not understand.
Children will react in different ways. The range of emotions they may feel is very wide: sadness, fear, guilt, disbelief, anxiety, anger or helplessness. It is important to explain to children what is happening and why, so they may understand and work through their emotions.
“Why did mom go to jail?”
“What will happen to me?”
“Is this my fault?”
“Will I go to prison too?”
“Can I see dad while he is in prison?”
Children will have many questions after one of their parents has been incarcerated. Even if the parent has a short sentence, the child will think the time seems much longer than the actual time away from the parent. The best thing to do is answer the child’s questions as simply and directly as possible. When children understand why mom or dad is in jail, they are more likely to grow up being aware that actions have consequences.
Children may crave communication and contact with their parent or they may want nothing to do with them. It is normal for a child to experience both of these emotions within a short period of time. Initially, a child may be angry and resentful. Later, the child may miss their parent and want to talk to mom or dad.
If the parent has visitation rights in the jail or prison, the child can visit the parent. Visiting arrangements require time and preparation though.
Children who want to maintain close contact with their incarcerated parent should be encouraged to write, call, and draw pictures for their parent.
These things can help the child cope while a parent is away from home.
Reassure the Child
Make sure to let children know this is not their fault.
Explain what is happening to their parent. Confusion only leads to suppression of feelings.
Let them know it is okay to be angry with mom or dad, but still love their parent even though they are angry. Encourage them to express their emotions in a healthy and safe way, like sports or talking about what they are feeling.