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How to Explain an Arrest to Children

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How to Explain an Arrest to Children

“Where’s Daddy? He said he would be here to watch my soccer game.” “What happened to Mommy? Doesn’t she love me anymore?” Questions such as these from children can be heartbreaking, especially when you don’t know how to answer them. How do you explain an arrest to children? And how do you deal with the grief or unwarranted guilt they might feel?

Children will Feel a Range of Emotions

The Strategies for Youth organization offers tips to police officers regarding how to explain an arrest to children. They say children will feel a range of emotions during a parent’s arrest depending on their ages. They include anxiety that the parent will be hurt; fear of separation from the parent; concerns regarding right and wrong, fairness and justice; and anger toward law enforcement or the parent.

The same concepts apply when one parent has to tell a child about the other parent’s arrest, or when a different family member has to help the child cope.

Be Empathetic when you Explain an Arrest to Children

When a parent has been arrested, it’s not only the parent’s life that has been disrupted. The child’s life will be disrupted as well. Many questions might arise in the child’s mind: “How will I get to school? Who is going to help me with my homework? Who is going to make my dinner? Who is going to take me to the park?”

Depending on their ages, however, children might not be able to vocalize these questions or explain their emotions. Anticipate the questions and bottled up feelings they might have, and make efforts to answer them before they become problematic.

Talk About a Parent’s Arrest Openly and Honestly

As you explain an arrest to children, remember to answer their questions honestly. They realize Mom or Dad is not in the house, and they know something is different. Dodging the truth will only make them feel confused and possibly isolated.

When you explain an arrest, however, let the children know that their lives will remain as close to normal as possible. Consider what types of things that specific parent did for the child, and explain how these things will be handled now.

Remind them how many other adults in their lives are available to help them. Tell them they are not alone and are loved by many people – including the parent who was arrested. Explain to them that it was not their fault in case they feel guilty, and allow them to express their feelings if they are able to do so.

Statistics Regarding Prisoners and Children

According to research posted on the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance website, the following data was released in 2008 and updated in 2010:

• An estimated 809,800 prisoners of the 1,518,535 held in the nation’s prisons were parents of minor children – 52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates.

An estimated 1,706,600 children have a parent in prison (2.3 percent of the U.S. population under 18 years of age).

Incarceration of mothers increased 122 percent, and the incarceration of fathers rose 76 percent between 1991 and 2007.

More than half of mothers held in state prison reported living with at least one of their children in the month before arrest, compared to 36 percent of fathers.

Among federal inmates, mothers were 2 1/2 times more likely than fathers to report living in a single-parent household.

Among parents living with their minor children prior to incarceration, more than three-quarters of mothers, compared to just over a quarter of fathers, reported providing most of the daily care of their children.

Short-term and Long-term Effects of a Parent’s Arrest

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says there is controversy surrounding the wisdom of providing children with information concerning the arrest and the reasons for the parent’s incarceration.

“Some argue that children ought to be protected from the knowledge that their parents are incarcerated as a way of minimizing the trauma associated with the separation,” they say. “Others argue that the emotional distress of children is exacerbated by the unwillingness of family, friends or caregivers to discuss their parent’s incarceration.”

Literature on children’s coping suggests, however, that uncertainty and lack of information undermines children’s ability to cope, so children who are uninformed about a parent’s incarceration are more anxious and fearful. Some professionals say that children need honest, factual information, and they need to have their experience validated.

“Providing children with reliable, dependable information allows them to begin to make sense of their situation and begin the dual processes of grieving the loss of their parent and coping with their new life circumstances,” according to the research.

Although there could be very good reasons for “silence” when you explain an arrest to children, studies show that children of prisoners are more likely to have negative reactions to the experience when they cannot talk about it.

Many organizations are available to answer your questions in the event of an arrest.

If you need help finding resources regarding how to explain an arrest to children, contact us at 313-244-0669.

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