How to help your Child with Embarrassment that one Parent is in Prison

All of us are encouraged to be model citizens and from an early age we are encouraged to recognise the sense of “right or wrong”. But what happens when the person you trusted most in the world has been sent to prison and you realise at a young age that the sense of ethics and morals that have been instilled in you over the years may be warped and based on lies?

Whether you immediately choose to tell your child that the other parent has been incarcerated or you decide that it may be better that they do not know just yet, the biggest issue you will have to deal with will be that of parental separation.

You will need to provide the child constant reassurance and an understanding of how much that they may be missing their mom or dad. The level of understanding will depend very much on the stage that your child’s social awareness has reached.

You will need to recognise the fact that any negative behaviour may reflect an attempt to come to terms with the changes that may have come about because of the absence of the parent. Children tend to find their own reasons to explain adverse life changing experiences and will often blame themselves for situations that they have had no control over.

The best thing you can do at this stage is to listen. Answer their questions as honestly as you can yet keeping a sense of consistent security within their lives. By slowly getting them to understand what has happened to their parent, will alleviate a lot of embarrassment in the future.

Some children will have to try to understand that the concept of “right or wrong” will not always be the same in other families. At a time when they may be looking to their closest adult family members to provide a good role model for them they may be forced to confront the reality that their parent has broken the rules of society and are being punished for their actions.

Some children may decide to distance themselves from an incarcerated parent to avoid embarrassment, yet at the same time feel emotionally torn because they still feel love for them. The truth of the matter is, many children will feel ashamed of what their parent has done and their shame will manifest itself as a sense of private anger and public embarrassment within their peer groups. They will love their parent but hate what they have done.

Children will have a sense of responsibility towards the incarcerated parent. They will also worry that the actions of the parent indicate a personal reflection of their own moral standards and may become concerned that people will assume that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing also. They may feel a sense of “being tarred with the same brush” and may become withdrawn and unresponsive to normal social activity.

Encourage your child to find a positive aspect about the situation. All children want to be proud of their parents so you could suggest that it is a “good” thing that the parent has gone to prison because it allows them to pay a debt to society. Your child may find it easier to accept knowing that their parent is being given the opportunity to change for the better. It also reinforces the concept that crime does not pay and that your child can learn this valuable lesson first hand.

There should be no reason why anyone should feel accountable for the actions of their parents. By getting them to understand this, means that they will have more chance of distancing themselves from the crime that was committed and more towards trying to understand why their parent did wrong in the first place, and feel pride that their loved one has admitted their wrong doing and is able to reform.

If it is common knowledge that the parent is in prison, then you will need to be aware that your child may suffer taunting and bullying at school. Work with the head teacher and staff member to develop a coping strategy for your child. Encourage a sense of dignity and self esteem. Your child doesn’t have to explain himself to anybody so the least said about the situation may be a good way forward.

Some children may create an elaborate lie to explain the absence of their parent because the embarrassment for some, can be too heavy a burden to bear. This may lead to conflicting feelings of relief and shame and anger towards the absent parent that they have been placed in the position of being deceitful to their friends. You can help your child cope a little better by suggesting they use phrases such as “gone away” or “not living with us at the moment” or “spending time apart”.

Your child may even boast about the incarcerated parent and intimate that is a “cool” thing, in an attempt to cover up his confusion and upset. Although this may bolster his confidence and self esteem a little, it may be helpful to work through this type of reaction with your child and help him to understand that he doesn’t have to justify to anyone what has happened.

Take the focus from the missing parent by making the most of any important events in the child’s life such as a birthday or success at school. Celebrate any achievements in a big way, and be mindful to make a record of the event so that the missing parent can “reconnect” more easily when they return home in the future.

Being embarrassed that your parent is in prison is perfectly normal. It is a healthy emotion that manifests itself from a sense of shame and anger. If you are a child, that burden can be doubly hard to bear because you may not be mature enough to understand how the situation occurred and how to deal with your conflicting emotions. However, by being given the opportunity to talk through your feelings and to be reassured that none of what has happened is your fault, will go a long way to helping you to come to terms with what your parent has done and help you hold your head up a little higher within your social group.