No parent, legal guardian, or grandparent wants to deal with being arrested or taken to jail; primarily for the children’s sake. It is not something we think about when we have kids, but arrests and jail time can happen to anyone. In the case that a parent or guardian is arrested, especially if the guardian has primary custody of the kids, there will come a time that the legal issues with have to be explained to the children. In most cases of course, a bail bondsman can be used to obtain a fast release from jail; however, there are several other circumstances that would render a person doing more time in jail than they thought. When this happens, the kids will eventually want to know where mommy and daddy is, and why they haven’t come home. For those of you facing a similar dilemma, continue reading and learn some tips on how to explain jail and being arrested to kids.

Juggling Jail and Kids

For children most of all, change can be a significant and stressful time in life. When a parent or guardian is arrested, or detained in jail for a period of time, a child’s life can drastically change. Many times, for longer sentences, kids are handed over to foster cares or alternative guardianship like aunts, uncles, and grandparents. This alone is a big change for a kid, not to mention the fact that they are clueless as to why it is all happening to begin with. This is why having a delicate discussion with youth about their parent’s situation is important, but it is not always necessary to disclose details of their legal troubles. The extent to which an adult explains their parent’s state of affairs is entirely up to the family. It is helpful to remember that each child will react differently to the news of their parents arrest and detainment. Common reactions include the obvious emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness; while other reactions are not as easily observable, like depression, embarrassment, and self-harming behaviors (eating disorders, promiscuity, etc.).

Sometimes a drop in school performance, losing interest in recreational activities, or refusing to see friends can be possible reactions as well. Be sure to pay attention to the emotional needs of each individual child to ensure they are safe and protected from bad influences. It is crucial for adults to be there for emotional support and help children safely and delicately process the unfortunate circumstances of their life.

Prepare for Questions

Children are prone to asking a whole lot of questions. When it comes time to talk about what happened to mom or dad, and explain where they are and why, be prepared to answer difficult questions. Just remember that the best way to explain all of this is to simple tell the kids that their mother or father went to jail because they did not obey the law. Again, it is up to the family to decide how much detailed information they are willing to disclose; but the simple answer that they went to jail and won’t be home for a while is usually the most helpful and efficient. For younger kids, it is helpful to make the analogy between jail and time-outs. Explain how bad behavior gets them in trouble and makes them sit in time-outs, and that jail is like time-outs for grownups and adults.

Always reassure children that it is not their faults and that their parents love them very much. This helps kids understand that they can safely express their feeling and emotions, and that they are not responsible for their parent’s behavior. They need to know that not everyone goes to jail, and that these “long time-outs” or only for people who break the law. Be sure to also tell kids they will have a chance to talk or see their parents on designated days. Kids might ask questions about jail, like what they wear and eat and sleep. These answers can be answered honestly; or you can choose to tell them you don’t really know. At this point, the questions may stop, but always be open to answer more if they confront you with any. Remember, it is always okay to say “I don’t know”, and let them ask mom or dad at their next scheduled visit.

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