Around 160,000 children in the UK are affected by the imprisonment of a parent or carer at any one time. Families affected by imprisonment experience grief and readjustment throughout the course of arrest, trial, imprisonment and release. You may have difficulty getting the information and support you need to help you feel in control during periods of crisis and stress.

Grandparents and other members of the extended family often step in to look after the children or offer more support when a parent, especially a mother, is in prison.  Only a minority of the children of women prisoners are cared for by their father.  Surveys of female prisoners have found that many of them had not expected to receive a custodial sentence, so had not made any childcare arrangements. The sudden and unexpected imprisonment of a mother often causes great problems for the whole family.

In this section we look at some of the specific emotional and practical issues related to caring for a child with a parent in prison. If you're taking on the care of a child in this situation, you may also need information and advice on benefits, housing or legal arrangements for the care of the children. See our other advice pages or call our advice line on 0300 123 7015.

What do we tell the children?

This is your decision, but it is widely acknowledged that children cope better when you are honest with them about what has happened  and where their parent has gone. By being open with children you will show them that it is OK to ask questions and talk about how they feel.

The child may have seen their parent arrested, and this can be very traumatic.  Children who have witnessed the arrest need explanations and reassurance  to help them deal with this shocking experience.

A sudden disappearance of a parent without explanation can leave a child feeling confused and scared. This is especially true when the adults around them are upset or angry. Children often internalise their feelings which can result in nightmares, tantrums and withdrawal from others.

It is tempting to believe that a child is too young to understand, or is not aware of what is going on. But even very small children sense tension or upset at home. A simple explanation that a young child can understand may relieve at least some of the anxiety. Lack of information, on the other hand, may make children insecure and afraid. There is also the risk they will find out some other way.

You may be able to explain in simple terms to a very young child, but older children need much more information, and they will get it somehow. If you tell them yourself, you can control the quality of that information and have some influence over its emotional impact.

Of course, each child is different and you will know the individual personalities in your family. What works for one child may not be a good idea for another, and it is always important that you take decisions that suit the needs of the individual child.

Children may need reassurance that their mum or dad still loves and cares for them. They need to know that it is not their fault that their parent has gone away and, if possible, how long they will be in prison. The child may also need to be reassured that their parent is not a bad person, even if they have done something wrong. You can also talk about contact with their mum or dad.

It can be more difficult knowing what to tell a child if the parent has committed a sexual or violent offence, or a crime against the other parent or another family member.

What, and how, to tell the children may  be one of the most important challenges you will face.  Advice and support is available from the organisations listed here.  You can download  a leaflet by Action for Prisoners’ Families called The Outsiders – Telling the Children here. This leaflet contains advice on how to talk to children about their parent’s imprisonment and how to deal with their reactions to the situation.

The child’s feelings and behaviour

Every child and every family copes in a different way with having a family member in prison. Children may experience a strong sense of loss or have muddled feelings about the parent who is in prison. They may feel guilty, angry, resentful, let down or ashamed. They may even blame themselves. Some children show few signs of being upset and appear to cope as if nothing has happened. Others become so distressed that their whole personality seems to alter. Their behaviour may change and become difficult to cope with.

The effect imprisonment has on the child’s relationships with their friends and peer group will depend on the nature of the parent’s offence and how other people in your community react.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to prevent other people from knowing about your situation, especially if it has been reported in the press. This may mean that people say or do things that upset you or the child you are caring for. Children need to know that they can turn to you, and perhaps other close relatives and friends or their teacher, for support, reassurance and comfort.

If you have serious concerns about the mental/emotional welfare of the child and feel they are not coping well, you can ask your GP to refer them to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for counselling. It’s also a good idea to keep the school informed as they may be able to help – many schools have staff or volunteers who can provide counselling or art or play therapy. Don’t feel embarrassed or that you have failed as a family if the child is suffering from depression or anxiety because of their parent’s imprisonment – this is a common response to a very stressful situation and you must seek help for them.

Dealing with your own feelings

Whilst trying to support the child you are caring for, you may be struggling with your own feelings.  If it is your son or daughter who is in prison you may feel guilty or angry. This is only natural, and is bound to last for a while. Remember that they are responsible for their own behaviour.  However hard we may try to influence our children, they are also influenced by their friends, peer group and other influences in society and make their own decisions.

If your son or daughter is depressed or suffering difficulties in prison, you may feel desperate at being unable to help.

You may be worried that the parent’s criminal behaviour will influence the choices that the child makes as he or she grows up.   Whilst studies have shown that the children of prisoners are more likely to go on to offend themselves, remember that there are many other factors involved.   Children and young people are also influenced by other people they feel a connection with.  If you can provide the child with a secure home, a good example of behaviour and respect for others, and if there are other positive role models in their life, this will act against the factors which make offending more likely.

You may find it helpful to seek support from others in the same situation through support groups for prisoners’ families. Many families have also found support from youth and community workers, faith groups or other agencies in the community.

Keeping in touch

Unless a child is very young, you can support them to make their own choices about contact with a parent in prison – whether by post, telephone calls or visits. Take account of the child’s wishes and feelings about whether and how they want to keep in touch.

In some circumstances it may be too distressing, or even harmful, for the child to have contact with their parent, for example where a parent has committed a violent offence towards the other parent or towards the child.

Parents may be in prison a long distance away. There are far fewer women’s prisons than men’s, so face-to-face contact with a mother in prison may be especially difficult. For children visiting, this can mean a long, complicated journey, an early start and a day off school.

Even so, visits are often of great benefit to both the child and the parent in prison.  Actually seeing mum or dad may help the child cope better – they may be able to see that despite the difficult circumstances, the ‘missing’ parent is alive and well and is the same person as before who still loves them. This can help them come to terms with the situation.

Regular visits may enable children to maintain their relationship with a parent who is in prison, and the parent to keep in touch with their child growing up. Research has shown that prisoners who remain in close touch with their families are less likely to reoffend on release than prisoners who lose that contact.

If the child wants to visit their parent but you don’t want to see them, somebody else may be able to take the child – such as a friend, relative or social worker. Equally, if the child doesn’t want to see their parent, respect their feelings. If you think it would be helpful for a child but they are resistant to contact, could you suggest to the parent that they write to the child, perhaps to let them know how much they are missing them?

Children will react differently to visiting a prison. Some may take it in their stride whilst others may be upset. Prison conditions can make a visit quite distressing and children under stress often behave out of character, perhaps seeming unusually withdrawn or attention-seeking.  Try to be relaxed with the child. Reassure them that what they are feeling is normal and that they can talk to you about their feelings whenever they need to.

Help and support

No one is automatically notified that a child has a parent in prison and unless the child is already known to children’s services, or assessed as a child in need, they are unlikely to receive any specific support. For information on how to get support from children’s services, contact our advice service.

You do not have to inform the child’s school that their parent is in prison, but it might be a good idea so they can be alert to any changes in the child’s behaviour and their need for extra support. Schools can also authorise a child’s absence in order for them to visit a parent in prison (under current DfE guidelines).

Your family’s need for support may not end when the parent is released. Separation through imprisonment changes family relationships, and the whole family may need time to adjust.  The Offenders’ Families Helpline and some of the other services listed here offer emotional support and practical advice at this time.