How children and young people may react
Many children and young people will experience a parent or family member going to prison. It is estimated that 20,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment in any year (Scottish Government, 2017).
This can be a very difficult time for children and young people and reactions will vary depending on their age and stage of development. Because each situation is unique, and so are the children and young people, their behavioural and emotional changes are also very varied. The impact of having a parent or family member in prison is similar to bereavement or parental separation.
Children and young people may feel:
- worried that their other parent will be taken away too
- angry with their parent for leaving them, or with the authorities for taking them away
- sad that the family has changed
- afraid or confused about what will happen next
- afraid to ask questions or talk about their parent
- grief because they are missing their parent
- worried that they are to blame somehow
- ashamed about their parent being in prison
- embarrassed by what their friends will think or say
- burdened if they have to keep it a secret
It is also not unusual for there to be changes in the child or young person's behaviour, for example bedwetting or temper tantrums.
Things to think about
The child or young person will want to know where their parent is and why. It is best to talk to them and get things out into the open as soon as possible, as they might feel more anxious or confused if they don’t know what is happening.
It is not always necessary or helpful to give them details of the crime committed. Many children or young people can accept the explanation that their parent has gone to prison because a court decided they had done something wrong. What you say to them will depend on their age and the nature of the crime - you will need to use your best judgment.
As well as having to adjust to the situation, the child or young person may also become aware of gossip about their parent being in prison and may be judged, teased or bullied.
The child or young person may choose to talk to a different family member or teacher about the situation, if they are worried they might cause upset within their immediate family.
The reactions of children and young people in this situation may cause a great deal of concern, and some families feel they should get extra help immediately. However, with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope and learn to deal with all the changes.
Think about your response
How you think and feel about the circumstances of the imprisonment will affect how you respond to the child or young person. Your experience of this situation, or how others have coped with similar situations, may also impact your response. To best support the child or young person, it is important to respond to them and their unique circumstances. If you are also affected by the situation, make sure you talk to someone if you need support.
What you can do
- Try to keep things as normal as possible.
- Talk openly as this will reassure the child or young person that it is ok to talk about their parent and the situation.
- Make sure they feel able to ask questions. Give clear, simple information, but if you don’t know the answer don’t be afraid to say so.
- Encourage them to express their feelings. Remember that other ways of expression (e.g. drawing) can also work as well as talking, especially with younger children.
- Reassure them that whatever they are feeling is ok.
- Be honest with them, but remember not to let your views about the situation influence what you say.
- Think about the child or young person first - ask them how they are doing before asking them any questions about the imprisonment.
- Remember that for them, the person in prison is their parent, not an ‘offender’ or ‘prisoner’.
- If the child or young person feels they have done something wrong, and that is why their parent has gone away, tell them clearly that it is not their fault.
- If they are upset by things that other people have said, or if they are being teased or bullied, reassure them that they are still cared for and loved. Deal with any teasing or bullying as appropriate.
- School will play an important role in supporting them and they should be encouraged to speak to a teacher or other member of staff if they feel upset or alone at school.
Keeping in touch
In 2018, the Council of Europe issued new guidelines to ensure that children with parents in prison have the same rights as other children, including regular contact with their parents where appropriate (for more information, see: www.familiesoutside.org.uk/news-release-27000-children-in-scotland-are-given-new-rights).
However, in some cases it will not be appropriate for a child or young person to have contact with a parent in prison, especially if there is a risk of harm to them. This will need to be explained to the child or young person.
Some ways that they can keep in touch with and feel connected to the person in prison are:
- Phone calls - the parent would have to ring the child or young person as people in prison cannot receive phone calls. Arrange a time in advance to make sure the child or young person is available.
- Letters - children or young people could write letters to their parent as often as they like.
- Email - children and young people could email their parent through the “email a prisoner” service, which allows people in prison to receive incoming emails. However not all prisons operate a reply service, and there is a cost to send and receive emails.
- Pictures and drawings - children or young people could draw a picture and post it to their parent.
- Scrapbook - children and young people could keep a scrapbook of things they want to share with their parent when they get home, e.g. photos, schoolwork or pictures.
Visiting the parent in prison can help children and young people cope with separation. They can visit with a family member or other trusted adult if their other parent doesn't feel able to take them.
For more information about what to expect, see: www.sps.gov.uk/Families/KeepinginContact/Visits.aspx
Some children and young people may not want to visit, and they should not be forced. Talking to them about why they feel that way is important and may help to reassure them.
Before the visit
- Prisons can be frightening places, so it is important to prepare them for a visit, especially if it’s their first time.
- To help prepare them for the visit, explain what might happen, for example:
- they may have to wait for a while
- there will be security procedures (similar to what happens at an airport) and visitors may be searched, which might include dogs
- there will be a lot of people in uniform
- doors will be locked
- there will be a lot of other people visiting
- visit rooms can sometimes be noisy and busy places, without much privacy
- their parent may not be allowed to get up from their chair
- when the visit is over, their parent will have to stay in prison.
- Tell the child or young person how long the visit will last. Visits are different at each prison, and the length of the visit can vary.
- Let the child or young person know that it is ok to show or to talk about how they are feeling during or after the visit.
- Take time to settle the child or young person when you arrive in the visit room.
- Try to make sure the child or young person gets plenty of attention during the visit and feels included.
- The time may go very quickly, and the child or young person might find it very difficult to leave their parent at the end. They may need reassurance about the next time they can be in touch, so planning when and how that will happen is important, for example the next visit or phone call.
After the visit
- It is likely that after a visit everyone will be a bit tired and may feel stressed.
- The child or young person may experience different emotions, e.g. they may feel sad that they’ve had to leave their parent behind or they may feel angry if the visit didn’t go as they had expected.
- Make sure they feel able to talk about what’s happened and to express their feelings. They may get upset, however this is a natural reaction.
- Pay attention to the child or young person's behaviour and emotional response. If it is different or unusual for them, it may be their way of letting you know they need more support.
Where to go for more support
Remember that with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope with having a parent in prison. However you might also want to consider extra help or support:
Families Outside, providing support, videos and helpline: www.familiesoutside.org.uk
Scottish Prison Service, information and support for families: www.sps.gov.uk/Families/Families.aspx
Who to contact if you're still concerned
For parents and carers
Please contact your health visitor, school, GP or other professional involved with your family.
Please consult with other professionals involved or the named person, and to help identify the most appropriate support, go to: www.nhsfife.org/choosingtherightsupport
Acknowledgements are given to Barnardo’s, Northern Ireland, and Families Outside for the information on this page.