Every child is different and how they will respond to the imprisonment of a family will vary from child to child, and case to case depending on the circumstances. Having a loved one go to prison can be seen as a “bereavement without a body” – the child may experience a real sense of loss, missing the company of the loved one who is in prison. There will also be practical difficulties associated with this loss.In addition to this, there is also the added difficulty of the stigma which accompanies imprisonment, which may complicate how the child feels and responds. 

This short guide will give you an overview of the key emotional and practical challenges generally associated with imprisonment. For more detailed information, please contact us on 020 735 9535 or hearourvoice@prisonadvice.org.uk. We provide a range of bespoke training packages to a range of professionals working with children, including school staff, social workers and the police. 

Emotional challenges

Imprisonment can be viewed as a “bereavement without a body” and therefore the typical “stages of grief” model may help you understand how the child may respond emotionally (see below). They also are likely to experience fear and anxiety: Fear – that another family member might also be taken away; that other people will find out; or that they will be bullied. 

These emotional challenges can also manifest themselves as physical responses, including bedwetting, nightmares, temper tantrums and other aggressive behaviours, self-harming and substance abuse. 

It is also important to note that sometimes the imprisonment can improve things emotionally for the child – eg. abusive parent leaving the family home

1. Shock 

The child may show signs of disbelief and laughter, and ask if the person telling them the news is joking. In response, they may switch to auto-pilot and try to carry on as normal; or they may have an extreme reaction, sobbing uncontrollably. 

Supporting the child through shock:  

Do not appear alarmed at the child’s response – especially if it seems inappropriate (eg laughter). It is important to reassure the child that feelings of numbness/disbelief are normal. When you are explaining the situation to the child, it is important to keep the language clear and simple so that there is no misunderstanding. Importantly, reassure the child that you are there for them and will listen to and answer their questions.

2. Denial

The child may not accept the loss and pretend that nothing has happened, refusing to believe that their family member is gone. This may result in them lying about the situation, to others and to themselves

Supporting the child through denial:

Give the child time to process and accept the truth – denial is a protective mechanism and the child will move passed this with time. It is also important to talk openly with the  child – reassure them that they can talk to you about what has happened and that they won’t get in trouble for asking questions about imprisonment 

3. Anger

The child may be mad at the world and blame others. They may get easily frustrated and over-reactive, blowing up over the smallest event. They may also use anger to cover up their hurt/sadness, and lash out at those not involved in the situation

Supporting the child through anger:

If they are hurting themselves/others, explain that whilst it is OK to feel angry, it is not OK to hurt themselves/others. You could encourage the child to have an outlet for their anger in a safe way – eg exercise (running) or hitting a pillow. It is important to reassure the child that they should not feel guilty about being angry at their imprisoned family member – this is a natural response and does not mean that they do not love their family member. It is also key that you remain constant and do not get upset if they get angry towards you: this will reinforce the fact that you are there to support them no matter what. 

4. Bargaining  

The child may try and “make deals” to change the situation - eg “if Dad comes back I will be good forever” or “if I make the house clean and tidy, Mum will come back” 

Supporting the child through bargaining:  

Explain that there is nothing they can do that will bring their loved one back – the family member is not in prison because of them and therefore they can’t do anything to get them out of prison. Be aware that even in spite of the reassurances, the child may continue to bargain as it makes them feel that they are doing something helpful for their loved one.

5. Guilt  

Guilt can be seen as anger turned inwards – the child may blame themselves for their family member’s imprisonment. 

The child may also feel guilt for any enjoyment they feel, either because they think they shouldn’t be happy whilst their loved one is away, or because they feel they shouldn’t be happy if their loved one isn’t happy - eg feeling guilty for enjoying an ice-cream when Dad can’t enjoy an ice cream in prison.

Supporting the child through guilt:  

Reassurance is key for feelings of guilt – it is important to tell them that they are not to blame. It may also be helpful to explore with the child how and why they feel responsible, and then respond to their reasons by explaining how and why they are not responsible. It is also helpful to encourage the child to talk about how they are feeling/what they are thinking

6. Depression  

You may see signs of depression in the child – they may not want to be with their friends, they may withdraw and refuse to go to school, they may continuously cry, and there may be significant changes in their appetite and sleep patterns. 

Supporting the child through depression: 

Ensure that the child knows that their feelings are important – especially as they may have low self-esteem and feelings of worth. It is also helpful if you can encourage the child to participate in their usual hobbies, sports and existing friendships. It is important to note that there is a difference between showing signs of depression and suffering with depression, and if you become concerned about the child’s mental health, you should talk to a GP.  7. Acknowledgment  

This is where the child acknowledges and believes that the loss is real, and they show signs of being willing to move on – eg “My brother isn’t here anymore” and “I am going to be OK” 

Supporting the child through acknowledgment:  

Help the child to understand that it is OK to become interested in life again and that this is not disrespectful to their imprisoned family member. You can also reassure the child that although things have changed, this does not mean that they won’t have a happy life or an exciting future ahead of them. 

Practical challenges

In addition to the emotional difficulties, the family may also experience practical challenges. Here are a few key difficulties:   

1)       Financial difficulties: If the imprisoned individual provided for the family financially, then there will be a big loss in earnings. In addition, assets, such as the family home, may be seized as they are deemed a proceed of the crime the individual family member committed. On top of the losses, there are also the increases in expenses directly linked to the imprisonment. For example, costs of prison visits are expensive: it costs on average £55 to visit a prison. Moreover, the cost of supporting the imprisoned (by ending in allowances etc) can also mount up 

2)       Moving house: The family may have to move house as a direct result of the imprisonment, either due to financial difficulties; due to a desire to move somewhere people don’t know them due to the stigma attached to the imprisonment (especially if the offence was in the mainstream media); or due to a change in custody of the child. 95% of children who have a mother in prison move and leave their family home. 

3)       Loss of contact: the child may not only lose contact with the imprisoned family member, but also to other family members and friends, due to the stigma attached to the imprisonment, or due to having to move house.