How to Help a Child Who Has a Parent in Jail

When a parent is arrested for a minor infraction or misdemeanor, it is not likely that they will be sentenced to any long-term jail time, or any jail time at all (other than the few hours they spend in county jail waiting to post bail). This is even truer for those who hire an experienced criminal lawyer to defend their charges. So in cases like this, it is easier for adults to hide an arrest or over-night detention of a parent from children. Many find that a simple tall tale to protect kids will do, like “daddy took a vacation”, or “mommy is on a business trip.”

Of course older children are keener to these fibs, so the truth may be the better option unless one can think of a more plausible (but still fictional) explanation for their parent’s temporary absence. And once mom or dad posts bail and returns home, life can go on as usual without the children ever knowing about their parent’s DUI or drug possession charge.

But when a parent is arrested for a crime that results in long-term jail time or imprisonment, a simple tall tale won’t be necessary. This is because a cover-up story for their parent’s situation won’t change the fact that the child will experience a significant sense of loss. In these scenarios, it is important to focus on helping the child cope. Continue reading for tips to do just that.

Dealing With Loss

Children go through grief in different ways, regardless of their age. Common emotions or behaviors include sadness, anger, resentment, lonesomeness, depression, and even substance abuse or promiscuity. Some children might even act out, and wind up in trouble with school or the law. Whether you are the other paternal parent, legal guardian, god parent, or close relative, it is important to look for any cues from children and teens who have a parent doing time. And keep in mind that kids do not express feelings like adults do; not only can their individual cues be difficult to perceive, they will most likely differ among siblings. For this reason, it is essential to pay close attention to every siblings’ emotions and behaviors within the first year of their parent’s incarceration.

Helping Them

The best way you can help a child who has a parent serving a long-term jail sentence is to be a good listener. Listen without judgement, and encourage them to talk about their feelings and how they change from day-to-day. When you generously listen, and listen without judging or “diagnosing“, children feel like they have a safe place to fall, which in turn keeps them open and honest with you about their experience. This allows you to better protect them from being a danger to themselves, and guide them in the right direction. But aside from listening, there are several other ways you can be supportive as well.

Remember that what may seem like an ordinary or even happy day can actually be a stressful or painful time for a child. Days of jail visits, holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries can bring about emotions that sadden or agitate them. So on days like these, being extra aware of their feelings is important. Simply reminding them that they are not alone, and never will be, can make them feel safer, more relaxed, and loved.

Another helpful deed you can do for a child with a jailed parent is to provide them with a means of professional therapy or grief counseling. This gives them a platform to discuss their feelings with an unbiased party that is not a superior to them. And licensed mental health counselors are trained in several types of therapeutic strategies and processes that promote healing and healthy growth for grieving children of all ages. You can even find local support groups in churches, schools, and other places within the community.

One of the biggest mistakes people unknowingly make is speaking poorly or negatively about a jailed parent in front of a child. It is important to never “bad-talk” a jailed parent for the sake of the children. No matter how angry you are, or how much you disprove, this habit can cause mental anguish and confusion for kids. Keep in mind that they love their parent no matter what, and wants to think of them as a good person.

Lastly, be prepared to answer all their questions, and be patient when answering them. It is best to be as honest as possible without alarming or scaring them. So practice if you have to.