Parents often need support and guidance in making decisions with and for their children. For parents who are bringing up children alone, the pressures are doubled an they are greater still if you are a parent trying to bring up a child while your partner is in prison. One of the most difficult things to face when someone is imprisoned is what to tell the children, but it is important that you talk to your child about what is happening.

Parents often hide the truth from their children. For example, encouraging them to believe in fairies and Father Christmas when they are small. When relatives pass away we may reassure our children that they are safe in heaven. Parents do this as they want to protect their children and keep them happy.

How to tell your children that their mummy or daddy is in prison is much tougher. Your children are bound to ask questions that you will have to deal with, and it is usually better to tell them the truth, explaining it in a way that they can understand.

It is of course any parent’s right to decide how and when to tell the children, but remember that there is no guaranteed way to protect children from finding out about what has happened in some other way. Maybe the question you could ask instead of ‘shall I tell the children?’ could be ‘when and what shall I tell the children’ Choose a time when you can give answers and all the time they need to comfort them.

A useful starting point is to think about what a young child already knows. That Daddy or Mummy isn’t at home? That Grandpa is upset? That men in uniforms came to the house? That people stop talking when the child comes in the room. Or maybe they don’t stop and the child hears things he or she doesn’t understand. Adults can be careless with what they say in the hearing of children, wrongly assuming that the children will not understand and it’s all right to talk.

A child may feel sorry for the parent in prison, or critical and angry with their mother or father for going away. Some may even feel proud, some may be embarrassed and some may be ashamed. Some will be very upset and you may see changes in their behavior, some of which may be difficult to deal with. This may happen while they come to terms with their parent’s absence from home.

Relationships at home can actually be strengthened by this kind of trauma, as everyone tries to support everyone else. Once you have told your children you may feel greatly relieved now they know the truth and you no longer have to worry about someone else telling them.

Every child and every family copes in a different way with imprisonment. It can be helpful to some adults and children to seek support from others in the same situation through prisoners families support groups.

A child may experience a real sense of loss, missing the company of the parent who is in prison. What ever the length of the sentence their parent is serving, try to give the child a sense of the future. Encourage them to count days to special events such as birthdays or the next visit. Children may have a muddled collection of feelings about the parent who is in prison and may even blame themselves. Children need to know it is not their fault. The may feel guilty, angry or resentful. These feelings are likely to be stronger if the arrest and trial have been reported in the media. The person in prison may still be a good parent and important to the child, even though they have done something wrong. Many children regard the prisoner as a hero. They may even be proud that he is in prison, although they still miss him.

Some children may show few signs of being upset and appear to cope as if nothing has happened. Others may be so distressed that they seems to have different personalities. A lot depends on the child’s age and the circumstances surrounding the arrest.

Some common concerns:
– Bed wetting
– Temper Tantrums
– Jealousy
– Depression
– Anger
– Refusing to go to school

Tips to remember:
– Praise, encouragement and affection are important to children of all ages whatever their circumstances.
– Routine is important for children, particularly if one parent going to prison has disrupted the family.
– Be consistent, agree some reasonable rules for behavior and keep to them.
– Take time together. Children enjoys individual attention with a parent.
– Communicate. Children usually say more if they feel they are being listened to.
– Discipline, this does not mean being harsh: it simply means teaching your children how to behave.

If you have serious concerns about the mental/emotional welfare of your child and feel they are not coping well, take them to your G. P. From there they should be refereed to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health authority for some counseling. It’s also a good idea to keep the school informed as they will have members of staff trained in dealing with child psychology. Do not feel embarrassed or that you have failed as a parent if your child does suffer from depression or another mental health issue as a result of their parents imprisonment – this is normal in the situation and you must seek help for them.

From a child’s point of view they may look forward to a visit, but may be disappointed because of the restrictions imposed when they get there. They may resent it that they can’t do any of the things they used to enjoy with mum or dad at home.

Here are some benefits of taking your children to visit for you to consider:
– Visits help children maintain their relationship with their parent in prison.
– The parent in prison will be able to keep in touch with each stage as their child grows up.
– Actually seeing mum or dad in prison may help the children to accept the situation and cope better: they will know that despite the difficult circumstances, the ‘missing’ parent is alive and well and is the same person as before who still loves them.

Prison conditions may have the following affects on children:
Before: “They get so excited I can’t manage them!” Children may be physically sick; they may be irritable, over excited or quiet and withdrawn.
During: “They get bored and run about” They may be restless, argumentative and attention-seeking.
After: “They cry to stay with their dad” They may be sad and tearful, unsettled and moody on the journey home, and this is very hard for you, because you will be feeling emotional yourself.

It is not hard to imagine the possible effect of having a parent sent to prison. Children and young people may feel uncomfortable or even stigmatised, if family circumstances make them feel or be seen as different from the rest of the group. Children need to feel accepted in their own personal communities: the school, their friendship group and their neighbourhood.

Some parents with imprisoned partners reported this kind of reactions:
“The kids lost out. They were made to feel different on the street by the other kid”
“It has affected how they talk to friends. They feel isolated.”
“Since my husband was arrested, our Matthew, who’s just turned seven, doesn’t play on the street anymore. His friends ask questions and make him feel bad. Matthew likes visiting his dad in prison and he likes meeting Paul, whose dad’s in the same prison. They seem to have a lot in common”
“Matthew felt rejected by his peers in his own community, so he has found a new friend who understands the situation.”

A growing number of women are being sent to prison, and there is evidence from research carried out in Northern Ireland found that the children of women prisoners tend to have a higher incidence of withdrawn behavior, communication problems, difficulties at school and antisocial behavior than children in an overall sample. The mothers often suffer serious trauma from the separation and their behavior in prison is affected by concerns about their child’s welfare, about what is happening at home. One imprisoned mother of four said:
“The main problem is that so many of the women are mothers. Women are usually the backbone of a family and when they are gone their partners and their children are very badly affected. They can do their [sentence] Ok but when things are going wrong outside and they can’t be there to deal with it that’s when they get very depressed. That’s why their moods change dramatically. The might be ok one day and the the next day they might be in a stinking mood. It just means that they’ve heard something has happened at home and their hands are tied”
A senior prison officer in a woman’s prison said:
“There’s a lot of women still running the home from inside prison. All men prisoners care about is their tobacco their meals and whether the’re still top dog in the prison. But the women are still running the home and I’ve seen women in prison write shopping lists every week to give their fellas when they come home so they get the right food and things for the kids.”

Many women prisoners are lone parents and usually have to rely on family and friends, rather than the father of the children, whilst in prison.

A survey carried out by the Home Office in 1995 showed that only half of women prisoners had expected a custodial sentence, so had not made any arrangements for child care.

“It never occurred to me that I would go to prison. I’d left my two years old with my friend to come to court ad the others were all at school, when I was sentenced I had no chance to make any arrangements for them. The judge knew I had little kids, but I was shipped straight to Holloway. You can’t even make a phone call to your kids. I never even kissed them goodbye because I thought I was coming back, and now they’ve been without me for six months. For three weeks my kids kept asking to see me, crying for me. My sister had to manage the faught of them, and she’s got five kids of her own.”

One mother in prison said:
“I was heavily pregnant and everybody said they’d never send me to jail, but they did. I had Jake, two, before I came into prison. I got two years for drugs offences, so I should be home before his first birthday. When I first went into prison I lost him for a while because there were no places on any units, so my sister had to have him. But after three days I got into a mother and baby unit”

One problem with rearing babies in a prison setting is that they would not normally get the same level of stimulation as even a very young baby would get in the community outside prison, when they would be taken out to the shops, to meet family and friends and their children, to go to the park in their buggies. It is up to mothers, with support from qualified staff, to supply extra stimulation in the form of toys and games, as well as talking and playing with their children.

If you have grandchildren, you may be called on to help out with child care or you may even find yourself as the main care-giver of your grandchildren. Even if the children’s father lives with them, he may have a full-time job, so you might be asked to help during the day time, and with taking the children to visit their mother. This can be a very stressful time for grandparents. You may have reached the age when you were looking forward to retirement after years of hard work bringing up your own children and earning a living. Now, suddenly as well as coping with the imprisonment of your own child, you find yourself in the role of primary carer once again. Sometimes there seems to be no alternative, and without your support your grandchildren may have to be looked after by the local authority. You may feel you have to offer to look after them to avoid them going into care. If this is the case, make sure you retain some time for yourself, to pursue your own interests. You need to look after your own physical and mental well-being – otherwise you will be little help to your child or your grandchild. ‘I am the parent of a young person in prison – I feel so ashamed, as if I’ve failed as a parent. But I’m really angry at him as well – he’s let us all down. Feeling this kind of guilt and anger is only natural, and it is bound to last for a while. No-one is a perfect parent and everyone makes mistakes in bringing up their children. Re,member, there are many other influences at work in society and however hard you try to influence your children, they will also be influenced by friends, peer group and have to make their own decisions about things like alcohol and drugs, you may feel angry because of the times you urged your son or daughter to think about what they’re doing– and now, just look where they’ve ended up. Allow yourself to feel angry, and don’t be afraid to say how you feel. But then try to look at ways i which you can deal with the situation as positively as possible. Just as you would with your child when s/he was young, make it clear that though you hate the offence committed, you still love the person. S/he is still your child, whatever has happened, and you will continue to give your support so that you can move on beyond what currently seems like a terrible and shameful situation. Visits, phone conversation and letters provide an opportunity to establish a positive , supportive relationship with your son/daughter.

Thanks to Action for prisoners’ families for this information