Talking to children and young people about imprisonment

The imprisonment of a loved one can be overwhelming for everyone involved. It can bring about big changes and transitions for children and young people, but with your support they can emerge from it feeling loved, confident, and strong. One of the most difficult challenges faced by families when someone goes to prison is what to tell the children. This information sheet may help you with this, but you may also find it helpful to speak with your Health Visitor, GP, or your child/ren’s teacher.

Should I tell my child when a close relative goes to prison?

As a parent, it’s normal to want to protect your children from bad news. At first you might think it’s better not to share the news that their relative is in prison. But keeping it a secret can be difficult, as there is no guaranteed way to protect children from finding out what has happened in some other way. Your child may already know and understand more than you realise.

It’s natural to have concerns about telling your child about imprisonment, especially if your partner committed a crime against you, or if it were a violent or sexual offence. At times like this, it is very easy for adults in the family to be caught up in their own feelings and worries. But this can also be a difficult time for children, and they will want to know where their parent is and why.

“Why are you sad mummy? Where is Daddy? When is he coming home? Can I see him? Did I do something wrong? Is that why he went away?”

Children who are not told where their parent is can become confused. It may be damaging for your child and your relationship with them if they feel you are hiding something from them, and most children will sense this. They will feel less able to ask questions and will imagine things which will worry them more.

When, what, and how much shall I tell the children?

There is no right time or way to tell your child, but it is best to get things out into the open as soon as possible. The age and development of your child will be important in deciding how much information and reassurance they will need.
It is not always necessary or helpful to give children details of the crime committed.

They just need to be able to trust that you have told them the truth. For example, many children can accept the explanation that their parent/relative has gone to prison because a court decided they have done something wrong.

They need to feel that they can ask questions and find out what they need to know when they need to.
They may feel it is they who have done something wrong and that is the reason why their parent has gone away. If so, they need to be told clearly that it is not their fault.

The following steps can help you prepare to talk to children about imprisonment.

Step 1: Prepare for the conversation

It can help to plan when you are going to tell children so that you are sure you have plenty of time to talk and answer questions without being disturbed. It may be helpful to tell them with another adult whom the children feel they can trust.

Think about your goals. You may want to consider (amongst other things):

  • What your child needs to know about where their relative is and why they are there
  • What prison is like
  • How long they will be in prison and will they be able to talk to them on the phone or visit them
  • How you can help your child understand what’s going on
  • What you can do to help your child cope
  • How should the child handle talking with friends
  • How you want your child to feel after the talk.

Step 2: Talk

Children need to feel that they are listened to and understood. Listening to a child, offering reassurance, and trying to understand things from their point of view can help them cope with the situation. It may be helpful for them to talk to another family member or school teacher, as children may not want to cause more upset by sharing their own worries and fears with those closest to them.

Before you have the talk, check to see if your child is open to talking with you at the time. You might consider saying something like this: “I’d like to talk with you about something important. Is this a good time?”

In some cases it will not be appropriate for a child to have contact with a parent in prison, especially if there is a risk of harm to the child. This will need to be explained to them.

Step 3: Follow up

Remember, this talk is likely to be the first of many conversations about their imprisoned relative and prison life. As time goes on, it’s very important to make sure that you and your child keep talking about what’s going on and how they are feeling.

Keep in mind that your child may hear things about your relative’s imprisonment from other people, which means that there may be times when you will have to help your child deal with people saying or doing things which upset them. You can support them and reassure them that they have done nothing wrong.

Children’s reactions

Children whose parents are in prison may feel:

  • WORRIED that you will be taken away too
  • SAD that the family has changed
  • ASHAMED about why their parent is in prison
  • RELIEVED if there have been a lot of rows or arguments
  • ANGRY with their parent for leaving them, or with the authorities for taking him/her away.
  • GRIEF because they are missing their parent and all he/she did for and with them
  • EMBARRASSED by what their friends will think or say
  • GUILTY in case they have been to blame somehow
  • FRIGHTENED OR CONFUSED about what will happen next
  • BURDENED if they have to keep the imprisonment a secret
  • AFRAID to ask questions or talk about their parent
  • WORTHLESS – low self-esteem often follows on from these other feelings.
  • Changes in children’s behaviour

If there has been a change in the family situation because their parent has gone to prison, you may see changes in your child’s behaviour. This is likely to be a sign that they are trying to deal with the many different feelings listed above. They may show this by going back to younger behaviour like bed-wetting or temper tantrums. They may find it difficult to concentrate at school. They may be aware that something has happened but feel too frightened to ask. You may find it helpful to speak with your Health Visitor or their teacher at school.

How Can You Help?

As far as possible, help children stay in contact with their parent or relative. You can do this by:

  • Taking them on visits to see their relative
  • Allowing the children to visit with another family member or friends if you don’t want to take them yourself
  • Answering any questions as honestly as possible in a way that makes sense to them
  • Encouraging children to talk about their parent/relative
  • Listening to their views on what they want to happen
  • Not turning them against their parent/relative
  • Reassuring them that their parent/relative still loves them
  • Keeping things as normal as possible
  • Telling the school, so that they can support the child.

Different ways of Keeping in Touch

  • Telephone calls – try to agree what time mum/dad will phone and make sure the child/ren are around. Leave time so they get to talk with them as well as with you
  • Scrap book – encourage children to keep a scrapbook of things they want to share with their parent/relative when they get home e.g. photos, schoolwork and pictures.
  • Letters – encourage them to write letters to mum/dad
  • Pictures/drawings – younger children could draw a picture and post it
  • Email – the email a prisoner service allows messages to be sent to a prisoner. For more information visit

Information on visiting a Scottish prison with your child is available here.

Resources for children

Families Outside has developed a range of resources for children which can help them to explore their feelings about having a family member in prison and can help you to have an open conversation about what has happened.

“My Diary”, follows the journey of a boy whose father is in prison. The book is a useful tool for anyone wishing to talk with children about the impact of imprisonment on them. A video version is available here.

“My Story” written by Katie, has been developed with support from Families Outside, to help young people with a family member in prison to understand and explore their feelings.

“My Visit” offers children a photo guide to prison and aims to address some of the fears children may have about life inside prison. It also sets out what they can expect if they decide to go and visit. It is also available as a video tour.

If you would like a hard copy of “My Diary”, email

It’s No Holiday

This film was created to support teenagers who may be affected by imprisonment of a family member, and raise awareness of the issues which can affect these young people.


KIN is a creative arts project by and for young people aged between 14 and 24 years who have experienced the imprisonment of a close family member. Supported by Vox Liminis, members of KIN use their own experiences to design resources for other young people affected by imprisonment. To access these resources please visit their website.


All materials Copyright © Families Outside 2017. Publication date: May 2017

Families Outside is a company limited by guarantee registered In Scotland No. 236539 and is recognised as a Scottish charity by the OSCR, No. SC025366.

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