How Much Should a Child Be Told When A Parent Goes to Jail?

When a parent is incarcerated, the separation is often very difficult for the child. Events leading up to the parent’s incarceration are often quite traumatic for children. Children are more likely to witness the arrest of their mother and may be psychologically traumatized by watching a parent being taken away by police. Family dynamics are dramatically altered, sometimes requiring children to live with other relatives or in foster care. The family left behind may become economically fragile due to a parent’s incarceration. Even if the family remains intact, the social stigma of having a jailed parent can be crushing to a child.

Some families choose to deal with the incarceration of a parent by failing to disclose the truth about the parental separation to the child. The child may be told that the parent had to move away for a job or school program in an attempt to shield the child from the fact of their parent’s imprisonment. Studies suggest, however, that the truth leaves children less anxious and fearful about their parent’s disappearance from their daily lives. When given facts appropriate to their age and ability to understand, children are able to talk about their feelings and better cope with the sudden loss of their parent. There are resources in Florida to assist incarcerated parents and their children.

Social science research suggests that children cope better when they know the truth and continue to have meaningful contact with their imprisoned parent. When personal visits aren’t possible or are infrequent, letters and phone calls can fill in to reassure the child that the parent is okay and still loves them. Maintaining parent-child contact can be just as important for the incarcerated parent and may predict more post-release success for that parent in returning to the community.


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