Children with a parent in prison
What do you tell children
It can be hard to tell a child their parent is in prison. It’s understandable to want to protect a child from being teased or feeling ashamed. However not telling the child the truth can cause problems later. If children find out the truth later on, they may lose trust in people who withheld information from them.
Children may also find it easier to adapt to the situation than the adults in their life.
Every family’s situation is different, and there may be circumstances in which it’s better not to tell children about their parent’s imprisonment. If you’re unsure about whether or how to talk to your children, it may be helpful to consult with a doctor or a family service with workers who understand children’s needs.
Children will want to know where their parent is and why. They need to be reassured that their parent is safe and that they’ll be able to see them or talk to them. Children have vivid imaginations, and what they imagine can be far more frightening than reality.
You can help children by talking about their feelings. They may feel anger towards their parent for going away, or towards police or other authority figures for taking their parent from them.
They may feel grief and sadness, guilt and shame. If they can talk about these feelings, they’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by their emotions. Children often blame themselves for their parent being sent to a prison, and need to hear that this is not their fault.*
Taking children to visit their parent in prison
Positives and negatives
There may be some uncertainty around whether to take a child to visit a parent in prison. Children may find visiting hard as they may have to travel long distances and deal with rigid security procedures. There may be a worry that when the child sees their parent in prison they may become upset and feel unsafe.
Families and carers should weigh up the negatives against the positives of a child visiting their parent in prison.
Visits can help the child and the parent deal with the pain of being separated. Along with helping to maintain their relationship, visits also help the child to have a more realistic understanding of their parent's circumstances. Visits also help the children with a sense of routine to their communications with their parent.*
Preparing for the visit
Children cope better if they know what to expect. It's a good idea for the caregiver or relative to visit the parent on their own first.
Telling the child things such as how long it will take to get to the prison, what officers will be wearing and what their parent will be wearing, how long the visit will last, what the visiting centre looks like and the difference between a non-contact and a contact visit.
At the visit
The following points will help contribute to a positive visit for children:
- giving the children something to eat and drink close to the visit
- taking the children to the toilet as close as possible to the visit
- cooperating with correctional officers
- telling the child's parents about the child's interests and activities
- plan ahead so you and the child’s parent know what to do if the child needs direction or guidance during the visit
- think of creative ways to keep the child engaged, and
- bring someone else along so they can take the children outside if they become restless.
After the visit
It can be upsetting for the child when they leave their mother or father in prison. Reassuring the child that future contact with their parent is important. They can still write to their parent and may be able to expect a phone call.
Ask children what they liked about the visit and also anything they didn’t like can also help. Encourage the child to ask questions, and answer honestly. Children cope differently, some will want to talk and some won't. It's important not to pressure them. They will talk when they feel like it. *
Help children keep contact
Parents in prison are able to make a telephone call. Regular short conversations with young children may be more satisfying than a longer one.
Sometimes children might not say very much. This is normal for children, and doesn’t mean that the phone call is a waste of time or meaningless. It’s helpful for children to hear their parent’s voice, even for a short time. The more regular phone contact between parent and child the more likely they are to relax and connect with each other.
Letters are a fantastic way for children to maintain contact with a prisoner.
It can be easier to express feelings in letters and drawings than it is on the phone or in person. Drawings, school assignments and photographs help provide conversation topics during visits.*
* information courtesy of NSW Families Handbook, a joint initiative of Corrective Services NSW and the Community Restorative Centre