How to cope if a parent goes to prison

When a parent goes to prison, it can have a devastating effect on the family that are left behind to cope with the aftermath. The parent that is in prison may feel as though they are the ones left in a difficult position but unfortunately the pressure put upon the parent that is left to care for the family is immense.  Parents in prison often cannot see how their sentence impacts on their family.  

They may be suffering with emotions such as guilt, frustration, anger and regret. They might also feel inadequate as they are not able to fulfil their parenting duties because of the limited contact. However, the time they spend in prison might give them the opportunity to reflect on their situation and take responsibility for the consequences on the family as well as themselves. It is common for parents who are left on the outside to feel as though they are carrying out this sentence. You can call the National Offenders' Families Helpline (run by Family Lives) for support and information on 0808 808 2003, or visit www.offendersfamilieshelpline.org

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Feeling overwhelmed

If you are in this situation, you may be feeling very emotional and going through what may be likened to grief. You may be left wondering how you are going to cope with the daily chores and manage family life. It is very natural to feel overwhelmed by this and lose confidence in yourself. Many families cope with this situation differently and do what they feel is right for their family. For some it may appear as though they are coping and getting on with things but for others it may be the opposite. You may have questions around finances, talking to the children, informing relevant authorities, practical issues, etc.  If you can, list down all the questions you have and start to work through them slowly. It is important to seek advice on much of this. 

Talking to the children

You may be dreading this conversation and depending on the ages of your children the information you give them will differ as will their understanding of the situation. It is difficult to let them know that their parent is away and why they are not at home. You might want to choose a quiet time and let them know the situation in an age appropriate way. It is important to go at a slow pace so they are given the opportunity to let this sink in and able to ask necessary questions. They might do this there and then or later on when they have had time to think. In some cases, a child may be asked to keep this a secret from their friends which puts them under a lot of pressure and they could end up feeling low.  Once you have spoken to your children, let them know that you are there for them and you will get through this together. They will need plenty of reassurance and be clingier than normal which is natural under the circumstances.  

The children may be feeling a range of emotions, including anger, guilt, frustration and be very upset.  It is important to allow them to express their emotions in a controlled way and again this will be dependent on their age.  If you have young children, they may not understand and you may just need to give them plenty of reassurance as they may feel unsecure and worried they might lose you.  If your children are older they may bottle things up or act withdrawn, if this is the case it is important to encourage them to talk things through with you as much as possible. You could speak to their school and allow them to support your child too.  They can speak to someone at Get Connected or Childline as well. It also is your choice if you wanted to allow them to come on visits to see their parent who is in prison.  

Finding support

It is very important to lean on family and friends during this time and accept help that is available to you. We appreciate that this is not so easy to do and you may feel like hiding away. However, for the sake of managing family life it may be necessary to turn to your support network even during the early days.

There are many organisations that can support you through this time and there is help available for the parent in prison through various projects. The Offender's Families Helpline can offer you lots of support practically and emotionally and Action for Prisoners' and Offender' Families is now part of Family Lives and also have lots of advice. They have lots of information for families who have come into contact with the Criminal Justice System as a result of a family member’s offending behaviour. They understand it can be a difficult and often distressing time and offer information and support from arrest through to release and beyond.

How we can help you

If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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