You and your child may experience a real sense of loss, missing the company of the loved one who is in prison.

The typical “stages of grief” model may help you understand how your child reacts:

  1. Shock

Your child may show signs of disbelief and laughter, and askif 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 your child through shock:

Do not appear alarmed at the child’s response – especially if it seems inappropriate (eg laughter). It is important to reassure your child that feelings of numbness/disbelief are normal. When you are explaining the situation to the child, it is important to keep your 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

  1. Denial

Your 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 your child through denial:

Give your 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

  1. Anger

Your 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 your 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 your 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.

  1. Bargaining

Your child may try and “make deals” to change the situation – e.g “if Dad comes back I will be good forever” or “if I make the house clean and tidy, Mum will come back”

Supporting your 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 your reassurances, your child may continue to bargain as it makes them feel that they are doing something helpful for their loved one.

  1. Guilt

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

Your 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 your 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 your child to talk about how they are feeling/what they are thinking

  1. Depression

You may see signs of depression in your 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 your 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 your 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.

  1. Acknowledgment

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

Supporting the child through acknowledgment:

Help your 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.