Explaining Father’s Imprisonment to the Kids

How do I tell my young children that their dad won't be around for a long time because he's going to jail? He just received a two-year prison term. Is there a gentle way to break this to them and help them understand?

Just how young are your children? Much depends upon their age and level of maturity. Any explanation you may offer will have to be age-appropriate in both content and language. Our advice is to let the kids guide the conversation by giving them an opportunity to ask questions. Your responses should be tailored to fit the inquiries – no more, no less. It isn’t necessary to give them a lot of information that they aren’t requesting.

In the mind of a small child, jail is a place where “bad guys” go. This suggests that one of the first questions will probably be, “Is Dad a bad guy?” Your concern at this point is to steer the discussion away from the subject of “bad people” to that of “bad choices.” Use this as an opportunity to teach the concept of consequences. Tell the kids that even adults have to abide by the rules, and that when they don’t, jail is sometimes the price they have to pay. Say something like, “You understand that when you disobey Mommy, Mommy has to give you a time out. It’s the same in the grown-up world.” The next question you’re likely to get is, “What did Dad do?” Here again, you’ll have to respond with discretion, keeping in mind the emotional and mental maturity of your children.

The kids will probably also want to know whether and when they can expect to see their father again. Make your response to this question as positive and encouraging as possible. Reassure them that they’re not going to lose their dad. Let them know that he’ll be coming back home as soon as the trouble is over, and that in the meantime you’ll be able to visit him and talk to him on a regular basis.

If at all possible, it would be preferable to have Dad himself answer these questions and provide all the necessary explanations. As a man, he needs to take responsibility for his own actions. As a father, he needs to set a good example for his children by owning up to his mistakes. If his sentence hasn’t yet begun, get him to sit down with the kids and talk about his while there’s still time. If he’s already imprisoned, see if it would be possible for the children to visit him or speak with him over the phone.

If you have any further questions, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.



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