According to studies, infants and toddlers who witness violence associated with arrest or incarceration in their homes or communities may display emotional distress and fear of being alone.
Explaining an arrest to children is often difficult. You must never forget that children are very observant and pick up on things they see, even if not directly addressed to them. A child will also ask questions when they don’t understand something, so it’s the parent’s job to answer these questions in a manner appropriate for their age.
It is a good idea to explain to a child why their parent won’t be coming home when they are arrested. For younger children, it’s best to explain in simple terms what going away means and that the arrest isn’t their fault or because of something they did wrong. Here are tips on how to explain an arrest of parents or a member of the family to children:
1. Use A Storybook
It may be easier to use a storybook as an aid when explaining an arrest since it can convey feelings and ideas more effectively than words alone. When creating your own storybook, try not to use drastic scenarios like “being taken away from your family by MOM-POLICE.” Instead, show a less heavy example, such as a parent saying goodbye at night before going off to work. Be sure to keep the age in mind when creating your storybook, as this will greatly affect how you word things.
2. Consider The Child’s Age
If a parent is arrested for sexual abuse, it may be best not to tell their child about the arrest until later on in life. This gives them time to mature to handle the situation better without being emotionally torn up. You don’t need to lie or omit information, but avoid bringing the issue up around the child if possible.
When explaining an arrest to your children, always use words they will understand. Speak slowly and clearly so that the child may keep up with what you are saying. Make them know how important it is for them not to repeat any information given out by mistake.
3. Be Honest
It’s important, to be honest with your kids. If you want them to trust you, apply the “honesty is the best policy” rule. It would also help if you already had conversations about how arrests work. Be sure that the child knows they cannot talk about this kind of information with others, such as friends at school, grandma, etc.
Generally, telling your child upfront what happened before hearing about it from anyone else would be a good strategy. Then you can begin to explain the arrest, using simple language and terms they will understand.
4. Explain The Process But Reassure Their Safety
Your primary focus right now should be helping your children understand why you were arrested, reassuring them of their safety. At the same time, explain to them the process ahead for you. Below are some of the questions they may ask and how you should answer them:
- Why did this happen? Hopefully, the reasons won’t come as a surprise (i.e., drugs), but parents should emphasize that no matter what, their love for their child doesn’t change. Nothing about this situation makes the parent a bad person.
- How long will it last? Let them know what to expect and be honest about your role in the process (i.e., going to court, getting help with a drug problem). If you don’t know the exact procedure, talk to someone, such as an attorney or counselor, for advice on how much information is appropriate for children your children’s age.
- Why won’t mommy or daddy live with us anymore? You can explain that this is a separate issue from the arrest – that one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other, and they shouldn’t hold anything against their siblings (if applicable). Assure them that even if the case isn’t resolved, it doesn’t mean you will be away forever.
- What does this mean for us? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that. The truth is, right now, your kids are probably scared and unsure about what the future holds. All they know is that their parents aren’t living at home anymore.
For young children, an explanation involving their feelings (i.e., “We’re all feeling very sad right now”) might be more appropriate than anything else. It’s because this prepares them for the worst-case scenario without having to deal with its specifics. Older kids may want more details or explanations about what happens next to help them understand how the process generally works (i.e., court date, probation, bail bonds). You can’t predict what they will do but it’s always best to be honest and take them seriously.
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- Will we have to move? If you are not allowed to return home, reassure your kids that even if the current plan doesn’t work out for everyone, there are other options and people who love and care about them. Always emphasize that they are not in this situation because of anything they did or didn’t do.
Keep in mind that children are different and come from various backgrounds with different degrees of life experience, depending on how you raised them. Just because one method works for one child doesn’t mean it will work for another. Children also learn differently than adults. You don’t want them to shut down or become confused by adult language or concepts (i.e., “DUI“).
Practice these conversations until you know your child understands. If there are parts they cannot comprehend, explain those parts again (and again if necessary) until they do. Then, move on to the next part and repeat as necessary.
On top of these, don’t worry too much about how long this conversation takes. It’s not about speed but comprehension. Make sure your child understands all parts of the conversation before ending it. If they seem anxious or worried, don’t ignore those feelings. Talk to them further until they’re ready to drop the subject for now. They may want to talk more later on or bring up concerns after time has passed, but that’s okay as well. As long as you’ve taken appropriate steps forward for their sake, everything will turn out okay in the end.