Over 200,000 children a year see a parent go to prison. Most of the time, it’s their dads that they see go. No one has the statistics on how many children see a brother or sister, grandparent, or other close family member go to prison, but logically, it must be in the tens of thousands. So we are talking about over a quarter of a million children with loved ones who, one day, experience the ‘vanishing act’. Dad, brother, mum…someone they love, disappears.

In some cases, children experience difficulties within the home before this happens. This can be as a consequence of a family member’s addiction, violence, offending behaviour or mental health issues. And in some instances, children also suffer the turmoil of the police entering their home, and see dad, brother, or another family member, being put in handcuffs and led away. Some children are already suffering trauma, and they and their carers need support. But every case is unique.

In many cases I have come across over the years, children are living in what feels to them like a perfectly normal loving family home. And then suddenly, one day, someone close to them vanishes. And in some cases, they can see that people around them are stressed & upset, and they know that there is some kind of secret about what has happened. But no one is telling them.

And they worry about this. They feel sad, angry, scared. They wonder if it is their fault. Did they do something wrong to make the person go away? Did the person not love them anymore?

No loving parent or carer wants to tell their child that dad, brother, mum has committed a crime and has gone to prison. The natural normal reaction of any parent or carer to such an event is to want to protect their child. And of course, many parents and carers are reeling from the shock themselves - trying to work out what it means. They may be dealing with having to move home, job, the reactions of family and friends, and of course, the complexity of the justice system.  I have heard it described as being like a bomb being dropped into the middle of the family, and you being the only one who has noticed, whilst the world carries on around you. It is devastating.

So, in the midst of all this, what do you tell the kids? And what does their imprisoned parent/relative want to tell them?

Daddy’s Working Away

Mum has had to go to hospital

Dad’s training to be a fighter pilot – we can visit him, but he’s not allowed to come home as the training is top secret

Your brother has gone to work on an oil rig in the middle of the sea

But then the child hears the whispers. Hears the word ‘prison’. At nursery. At school. In hushed conversations. And then they start imagining. They imagine terrible things. But they know it is ‘secret’, so they keep it to themselves. They don’t even tell their parent that they know. They go along with the lie, because that’s what they think they are supposed to do. And maybe they will get into trouble if they ask too many questions, because everyone looks so angry and upset.  And so some children can enter a very dark lonely prison all of their own.

So, here’s the point of this. However young your children are, however worried you are about them knowing that someone they love has gone to prison, it is nearly always better to be as honest as you can with them. Children are much better at coping with the truth than they are with secrets and lies. Most children are pretty smart and pretty tough. As long as they know they are loved, and feel safe. 

But of course, there are ways to tell children. We know that it can feel really hard to talk to your children about prison. And parents know their children best, and we always respect their decision.

The other day, I heard a little boy say, my mum says that my dad has been naughty, and so he has got to stay in a prison for a bit. But she says he isn’t bad really, but he shouldn’t have done it, and that he loves me, and so we come here and see him.

His mum is getting it right.

Which is why we have built a new section of our website for you, and for your kids, and for the professionals around them, including schools. You can also call us for a chat. Your kids are not alone. And neither are you.

This article was written by Pact's Chief Executive, Andy Keen-Downs. To find out more about Andy, please click here.