Dealing with a child whose parent has to go to jail or to prison can be pretty tricky. You want to protect their innocence and shield them from the worst, but does doing that mean that you have to lie to them?

You’re Not Alone

As many as 2 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison in 2007, according to the University of Madison-Wisconsin’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being, and the numbers are likely higher now.

It’s tempting to make up a nicer, more pleasant story to explain where their missing parent is, any parent can tell you that kids are human lie-detector tests. They can see right through adults.

For the most part, telling the truth is the best way to explain incarceration to kids. However, being honest doesn’t mean that you have to drop everything on them at the same time; that can be extremely overwhelming for a child.

How to Explain Incarceration to Kids

Experts suggest answering your kids’ questions honestly, and stick to the point — don’t go off on a tangent. Don’t dive into the whole story, either. Just give out the bits of information they ask for, and make sure that you’re considering the child’s age and his or her level of development before you start talking.

It’s okay to explain that their loved one broke the law, but ensure that the kids know that he or she is not a bad person. Stress that their parent still loves them, and this separation is not going to change that. Even though the truth may not feel good in the moment, this is probably the best way to ensure that the children continue to trust you and suffer only minimal emotional damage.

Experts also suggest that you check in periodically to make sure they know you are always willing to talk.

Building Trust Through Honesty

Every parent knows how important it is to keep your word and back up your promises with actions. In addition to showing the children that they can trust you and rely on you, it builds stronger bonds… and that’s exactly what kids need when one parent is incarcerated.

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