Supporting children affected by imprisonment

This short professionals' guide offers an overview of the challenges associated with parental imprisonment.
Supporting Children Affected By Imprisonment (1)

Every child is different, and how they respond to the imprisonment of a family member 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. Practical difficulties may also be associated with imprisonment, such as loss of income and moving home. In addition, stigma surrounding the imprisonment can further complicate how the child feels and responds.

Emotional challenges

The imprisonment of a loved one is like a "bereavement without a body", and therefore, the typical "stages of grief" model may help you understand how the child may respond emotionally. They are also likely to experience fear and anxiety that another family member might be taken away, that other people will find out, or that they will be bullied.

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

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

1. Shock

The child may show 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 usual, 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 (e.g. laughter). It is important to reassure the child that numbness and disbelief are normal. When explaining the situation to the child, keep the language clear and straightforward to avoid 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 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 past 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 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.

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 safely – e.g. exercise (running) or hitting a pillow.

It is essential 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 vital to remain constant and not get upset if they get angry towards you; this will reinforce that you are there to support them no matter what.

4. Bargaining

The child may try to "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 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 despite the reassurances, the child may continue to bargain as it makes them feel they are doing something helpful for their loved one.

5. Guilt

Guilt is anger turned inwards – the child may blame themselves for their family member's imprisonment.

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

Supporting the child through guilt:

Reassurance is vital 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 their feelings are important – especially as they may have low self-esteem and feelings of worth. It is also helpful to encourage the child to participate in their usual hobbies, sports and friendships. It is important to note that there is a difference between showing signs of depression and suffering from 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 – e.g. "My brother isn't here anymore" and "I am going to be OK."

Supporting the child through acknowledgement:

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 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.

Financial difficulties

If the imprisoned individual provides for the family financially, there will be a significant loss in earnings. In addition, assets, such as the family home, may be seized as they are deemed proceeds of the crime the individual family member committed. On top of the losses, there are also increases in expenses directly linked to the imprisonment. For example, prison visits are expensive. Moreover, the cost of supporting the imprisoned (by ending in allowances, etc.) can also increase.

Moving house

The family may have to move house as a direct result of the imprisonment, either due to financial difficulties or 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.

Loss of contact

The child may not only lose contact with the imprisoned family member but also with other family members and friends due to the stigma attached to the imprisonment or due to having to move house.

Find out more

For more detailed information, please get in touch with 020 735 9535 or We provide a range of bespoke training packages to professionals working with children, including school staff, social workers and the police.