Last updated on September 14th, 2023 at 10:20 pm
The Night Dad Went to Jail is a children’s book has been on my radar to check out for a long time since I come across several children and teens whose parent went to jail. Having a parent or loved one go to jail can be extremely traumatic and jarring for most children.
It’s a big transition that can come with confusion, shame, fear, worry and sadness. This book does a really nice job of normalizing the feelings that children have when faced with this difficult situation. I like that it also folds in statistics about parents in jail/prison and recommendations for the person reading the book to the child.
This book does a really nice job of normalizing the feelings that children have when faced with this difficult situation.
Another positive aspect of the book is that it incorporates interactions with police, social workers, therapists, and a caregiver — all supporting the child.
Additionally, the book is written in the first person, the eyes of this young bunny. It very much reads like a narrative that is often used in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TFCBT) — an exposure based trauma treatment where children and teens draw or write out the details of their trauma and work with their therapist to modify negative thoughts or beliefs about the event, themselves or their future.
As a certified TFCBT therapist, it was heartwarming to read this book which provides great information, recommendations, and above all, providing normalization for kiddos’ and their parents’ reactions in the face of such a challenging situation.
What to say to a child whose parent is incarcerated
Depending on the child’s age and their level of understanding, you will have to craft out an explanation in their own language or phrasing.
Most children know about cause and effect, so keeping it as simple without too many details of the actual crime could suffice in the beginning. A sample explanation can be: “Your mom or dad (or the name of the loved one) may have broken the law (or rules) and the police are asking him/her questions. Sometimes these things take a while — maybe some days, maybe months. If mom/dad/loved one broke a rule/law, we might not see them for a while.
Needless to say, there are several instances in which a loved one is incarcerated and they didn’t break any rules or the law. While this may be a complex topic and discussion, letting children know that, “we still don’t know all the facts about why [loved one] is in jail. I know you miss them and worry about them. I do too.”
Depending on the developmental stage the child is in, sometimes they believe that they are at fault or to blame. Make sure to reassure the child that adults are responsible for their own behavior and/or that there are big systems and rules we don’t have all the information about. Additionally, their feelings are valid and they are safe to share them with us.
Make sure to reassure the child that adults are responsible for their own behavior and/or there are big systems and rules we don't have all the information about.
Distinguish the Behavior from the Character of the Person
You can also distinguish the behavior from the character of the person if necessary. Such as, “Mom/dad/loved one is not a bad person, we are still finding out about how they broke a rule/law. [They] love you very much and miss you too.”
Encourage them to talk with you about their fears, concerns, or any thoughts and feelings they might be having. Above all, be willing and open to listening to them and validate their feelings (even if their thoughts might be distorted, their emotions are valid because they feel them).
Employ the “yes, and” communication rule in your vocabulary to help them see the validity of their emotions, and how sometimes they can be clouded by negative thoughts.
An example can be, “I know that you’re sad and feeling guilty about this being your fault, and mom/dad/loved one is an adult and all adults are responsible for their own behavior.” For those cases in which someone is wrongly convicted, we can let our kids know, “I know you’re sad and feeling guilty about this being your fault. This is such a difficult situation. It’s not your fault. Something unfair happened and lots of people are on our side, using their voices to help [loved one].”
Therapist Tips for Difficult Conversations with Children
Sometimes children have a hard time opening up about a certain situation, feelings, or distressing topic. It can help to have a story read, told to them, or even watching a movie about another person going through the same or similar situation. It can get the very difficult conversation started.
If your family is going through having a loved one incarcerated my heart is with you. It’s definitely a tough situation for all involved. During this time, it’ll be important to offer yourself self-compassion in acknowledging how difficult it is for you as an adult. Then the practice of extending compassion to all involved will carry you through these hard times. Modeling to our kids that our compassion can be there for us during the most difficult times is a gift for anyone who is suffering.