Caregiver Connection: Talking with Children about Incarceration

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Girl and woman walkingIt can be difficult to know how much to share with children about the incarceration of their parent. We want to protect them from  worry, shame or embarrassment. Caregivers sometimes tell children that the parent is away on vacation, at work, in the military, or at college. Although well-meaning, this can backfire. Children eventually find out the truth, which can damage trust with the very people they depend on.  

We know from research that children do better when they are told the truth about their parent’s incarceration. How much you share will be up to you.   

Here are some ideas on how to talk with kids about their parent in jail or prison:  

  1. Give age-appropriate information. Provide simple and honest explanations. For young children, this might be, “Dad broke the law (or some people think Dad broke the law) and he has to go to jail for a little while.” Older children may be ready for a more complete story. In fact, they may hear about it at school or in the community, or even read about it online. It is usually easier on them to get the story from their caregiver or parent.
    Even young children understand the idea of consequences for behaviors. This can be a good opportunity to explain to the child how the action may be been wrong, but the parent is not bad – just as the child sometimes does things that are wrong, but that does not mean that the child is bad.
  2. Let them know it is not their fault. Children of almost any age may worry that they did something wrong to cause their parent’s incarceration. Children need to hear (again and again) that it is not their fault and that their parent loves them very much.
  3. Use books and videos. Children’s books and videos can be a great way to talk over difficult or emotional topics with children. For children impacted by the incarceration of a parent, books can be a helpful way to explain, normalize, de-stigmatize and support them in their experience. It can help them to know they are not alone.
    When you read with your child, you also strengthen your bond. A close, nurturing relationship with you can help protect your child from the damaging impact of too much stress.  Here is a list of children’s books on incarceration and managing emotions.
  4. Don’t badmouth the other parent. You might have some good reasons to feel upset with the parent in jail or prison. It is healthy to express these frustrations with a trusted adult in your life. However, do not badmouth a child’s parent in front of them. An insult to the parent is an insult to the child. Children have a right to love both of their parents, even when a parent has made poor choices.
  5. Be ready for questions!  When children know the truth about where their parent is, they will have questions, and some of these questions might be difficult to answer. You won’t have all of the answers, and it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. However, it’s important for children to feel free to talk about their feelings.Children may also ask you for the same information over and over again, as they work to process the situation. Have patience with them. Children mainly need to be reassured that they are safe, loved and not to blame for their parent’s incarceration. 

It takes courage to have these conversations! Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends or a counselor for support. Just like our kids, adults also need someone to talk with. Watch for more information on self-care soon.  

The goal of this series is to offer you support in your role as a caregiver of a child impacted by incarceration. Here are additional resources for you and your family.  

From Handbook on Children with Incarcerated Parents: Research, Policy and Practice (Poehlmann, Eddy, 2019) 
Poehlmann, J. (2005). Representations of attachment relationships in children of incarcerated mothers. Child Development, 76(3), 679–696.