a)   What do they already know?

It may be useful to think about what your child already knows – did they witness men in uniforms coming in their home? Have they overheard any conversations they may not quite understand? Older children may well have guessed what has happened, or overheard gossip, or read the headlines in the paper or online.

If your child has witnessed the arrest, then this may be particularly distressing and they will need explanations and comfort to help them deal with the experience, particularly if force was used by the police, such as kicking the front door down, or handcuffing their loved one in from of them. Your child’s home and community may suddenly feel unsafe for them, and they may be distrusting towards the police, or people in uniforms.

After a loss, children need support, stability, and honesty. Children may blame themselves for what happened and the truth helps them see they are not at fault. Children may also imagine the situation as being a lot worse than the reality so the truth may reassure them and put their minds at rest.

b)   The age of the child

The age of the children is important to consider when deciding how to tell them and how much information you should give. For younger children, you may not want to explain why they are in prison, but say something like “You know your daddy’s away – did you know that the place where we are going is called a prison? That means he can’t come home for three birthdays, but we will keep visiting him so he knows we still love him”.

Older children will need much more information – and in this day and age they will get it somehow. If you are the one to tell them, you will not only have some control over the quality of that information, but you can also have some influence over its emotional impact.

c)    When to tell the child

It is important to think about where and when to tell a child; this should not be at a time of distress or trauma, as it will be difficult for them to comprehend the news. It is worth bearing in mind the time of day, some research suggests that first thing in the morning is not the best time as children are collecting their thoughts and the evening can be difficult as children will have lots of thoughts to deal with. It is worth considering where you tell them, we would recommend this to be an informal environment, possibly when they are playing so they are comfortable and in familiar surroundings. If the child is younger, think about what is calming for them, this could be a toy or a comforter that they have with them. Do think about the language you use, making sure it is age appropriate and said in terms they can relate to.

d)   Who should tell the child?

Most people prefer to hear difficult news from someone they can trust, and in some cases, this may not necessarily be the parent - it could for instance be from another member of the family. As the parent/carer, you are the expert in the child and how they will react, so think about who is best placed to talk to them and where, when and how to broach the subject.

It is also important to work with other people that are supporting the child in their life – so do speak to your child's nursery, school or college to ask for support and to find another trusted adult in whom the child can confide.

e)    What to tell the child

Most children will want to know where their family member is and why. A child may have a very simple idea of good and bad, especially younger children. They may feel that if a parent or family member has gone to prison, it makes that person a bad person - and maybe that makes them (their child) bad too. Children strongly identify with parents as role models - sons with fathers and girls with mothers particularly. So it's very important to reassure a child that although their family member may have done a bad thing, it doesn't mean that they are a bad person - and it doesn't mean that the child isn't loved. Nor does it mean the child is going to be bad. You may have strong feelings about the family member’s offending, and it's ok to tell a child that you feel cross or angry that the person has been 'naughty' or done a bad thing, as they are likely to pick up on your emotions. Children get very conflicted about all of this so it's good to be honest and open and clear about these things so that children don't feel that they should also be or do bad things - in order to be like their parent or big brother. 

The child may also need reassuring that their family member is safe and that they will be able to see or talk to them. It may help your child to try to give them a sense of the future – you could encourage them to count days to special events such as the next visit, birthdays. Some prisons run homework clubs or special family days where children can visit in a more relaxed environment. There are also lots of different ways that you can help your child maintain contact with their loved one – your child could send in letters or artwork, and can even email their loved one, and the imprisoned family member will be able to call the child. Many prisons also have access to Storybook Dads or Mums, where parents in prison can record stories on a CD to send to their children.

If you would like support on telling a child about a family member being imprisoned, call the Prisoners’ Families Helpline on 0808 808 2003.