There are many ways an arrest impacts the individual arrested and his or her family and friends, but none may be quite so poignant as the experience that children have during this time. According to several studies done over the past few years, children as young as infants and toddlers who are witness to violence associated with incarceration or an arrest at home or in their neighborhood may develop a high level of fear or other emotional distress responses.
No matter how you try to shield them from difficult things, children are extremely sensitive and observant, and will typically notice and ask questions if they don’t comprehend a situation. A family’s primary job is to provide security, love, and support to their children and to answer any questions in an age-appropriate manner.
Depending on the age of the child, their maturity level, and the situation, it may be appropriate to explain to children that their parent won’t be coming home for a while when they are arrested. Try implementing the following ideas to talk to your kids about an arrest and always remember that every family and every child is different and needs to process things in their own way and time.
While you don’t necessarily need to share all the details of the situation with your kids, it is important to be honest and clear. If you can explain to them in a general manner how arrest and incarceration work, then they will be more understanding once you explain that someone they love has been arrested. If they have this basic knowledge once the emotional roller coaster hits, they will be able to trust that you are being honest with them and that the situation is something they can grasp.
You also want to make sure that you are the first person to talk to your child about it and that they don’t hear through the grapevine, and therefore, mitrust you. Additionally, make sure that you think about talking to the child about keeping things private. If you don’t want them talking about the arrest with teachers, friends, or other family members, explain that to them and the importance of why.
If your child wants to talk about it with someone other than you, it might be a good idea to enlist the support of a trained therapist or school counselor who is experienced with the situation.
Explain the Situation and Reassure the Child He or She is Safe
You can explain the process of arrest and incarceration while at the same time focusing on helping your child understand that he or she is safe. Children will generally want to know:
- where their loved one went
- why the arrest happened
- how long they will be gone
- what will it mean for the family as far as changes go
- will they get to visit their incarcerated family member
- will they still be able to go to the same school or will they have to move
There may also be other questions depending on the needs and age of the child, and it’s also okay to honestly answer that you don’t know if some things are up in the air. It’s good for kids to see their parents struggle with not being in control of everything all the time and have them model good coping mechanisms that are healthy and helpful.
Keep the Conversation Age-Appropriate and Avoid Further Trauma
If a parent or family member is arrested for violence or sexual abuse, it may be better to wait to explain the details to the child when they are older and more mature. Seeing a loved one arrested or incarcerated will be difficult enough without giving them the added emotional burden of dealing with other adult issues. It’s not necessary to lie to the child about the charges; in fact, honesty is the best policy. It is okay to say that you are telling them the basics, but that you are going to wait until the child is older to talk about the details of the case with them.
Try to use words and ideas that children will understand, and it’s important, especially for younger children, to moderate your own feelings when you are explaining things so that they feel safe and know it’s a safe topic to talk to you about. You can also use a storybook that has been written to help children understand and deal with an arrest, or talk to them with the help of a child psychologist if resources allow.
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