Many children are not told when a parent is sent to prison. There are many reasons for this: fears that they may be traumatised or that it gives them permission to get into trouble, like their parent in jail. It is a parent’s right to make that decision, but most of the available research shows that it is better, in the long term, to tell them, giving consideration to their age and maturity.

Children are often told that the parent is “working away”. However, children can often sense that something is wrong in the family and may reach conclusions which are not true . For example, the child often thinks that the parent has left the family for good, has abandoned them or doesn’t love them.

Professionals who work with children of an imprisoned parent point out that the loss of closeness and contact can be compared to other family crises such as illness or death. For the children of prisoners, the difference is that they are alone in their loss if the imprisonment is kept as a family secret. The child has nobody to talk to and they may act out. Sometimes these difficulties can cause health issues for the child. They may become aggressive and introverted, or show a lack of concentration at school. Managing this behaviour can be very difficult for the parent at home and also for the parent in prison, who cannot manage parenting from a distance.

The homecoming can raise tensions for all the family, including the children. They must all learn to rebuild their relationships. One father discussed the difficulties he experienced after the first few days of his release: “I’m not used to being around noisy children. I have been used to my own space and now I prefer to be alone. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my children but part of me feels uncomfortable around them”.

Another father reported that he found it difficult to resume parenting his children: “The children are not doing what I tell them because I have been away for four years. They have grown into teenagers and don’t think I have any right to tell them what to do”

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