What are the options for explaining a (divorced) mother's absence to a 7 year old? Should the child be told the truth? (Assume the crime is non-violent and financial. Also assume the child has had a loving relationship with both parents, separately for the past several years. The parenting plan has the child staying with the mother every other weekend; other times with the father.)

Are visitations by a 7 year old to an imprisoned mother generally considered by experts to be the best approach or are there other approaches that child experts suggest?

(The topic of telling children about a parent in prison was discussed here but without consideration of the age of the child: Should children of incarcerated parents be told the truth?)

2 Answers 2


That question and answer you linked said everything about why you absolutely should tell the child the truth. At seven your grand is perfectly capable of understanding the concepts of right and wrong; understands making mistakes and also understands punishment.

The mother is paying for the mistake she made. If it is true, say that Mother is sorry and is trying to do better. You'll have to tell the truth about the crime, too. That could be a problem depending on the nature of the crime. Theft is a much more simple explanation than prostitution, but regardless truth is important. Do not make excuses, just tell the truth as kindly as you are able to.

Separate the person from the crime. Mother is not labelled by you. The crime might be named, but you do not call Mother a thief or a drug dealer. "Mom made a serious mistake. The judge put her in jail/prison for x amount of time. Mom is trying to fix this by being good in prison. She loves you and wishes she had not made that mistake."

I hope your grand does get to visit. If nothing else she'll see her mum is safe and that she still loves her daughter.

Encourage the relationship (unless custody was refused or visitations refused.) Letters, drawings, visits and phone calls will all help. Take photos and report cards and examples of projects or school work that your grand can share with her mother. A journal that your grand can choose to share with Mother (or not share) can help her with her feelings. She can draw, use photos and write things in her journal.

My daughter's birth mum and dad died. She had a journal that was really a decorated accordion file folder. She wrote, drew pictures and shared photos and 'shared' them with her Mummy and Daddy. We do not pray but we do speak aloud our gratitude, and in addition she spoke to them every night before bed -- just to tell them what she was doing. This was our 'key' to helping our child get past the trauma. You might try something like this for your granddaughter. We keep Mummy and Daddy alive by talking about them frequently. You can keep Mother as an active but absent family member in the same way.

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    This is also good advice if mom is committed to a long-term psychiatric facility. Interestingly, the stigma is probably worse for the mentally ill than the criminal; although visitation rights are better in a mental health facility, even for the criminally insane.
    – Stu W
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 0:34

There are a number of things to consider to answer this question. OP states that the mother is incarcerated from a non-violent crime (which covers a huge range of things) but we don't have access to critical information. For instance, what was the relationship between Mother and Child prior to the arrest? Healthy? Loving? Abusive? Neglectful? Did they live together, or apart, or part of the time? Was the child present when Mom was arrested, or did she just not show up at school to pick him/her up? The sources (listed below) provide a number of things to consider:

  1. I absolutely, firmly, agree that the child should be told that their Mother is in jail (for xx amount of time). Time might not be a fully understood concept for a 7yo. They may not be capable of understanding "two years", but "two birthdays" could make a lot more sense.
  2. I'm wary of suggesting that a 7yo needs details about what their Mother did 'wrong'. A 7yo will not fully understand what or why this happened. I think most parents would agree that 7yo children fundamentally understand right from wrong, but they don't have any references for the gray areas between the black and white of breaking the law. Leave that conversation for when the child is older.
  3. If the Mother and Child are agreeable to visitation, then everything should be done to make it happen. It will help the child comprehend that "Mom" cannot come home just yet. But more importantly, it will help them move forward with their relationship. Visitation isn't the only way that their relationship can move forward. Consider (birthday and holiday) cards, letters, and gifts.

  4. There are reasons not to have them see each other though. If the Mother lost her custody rights prior to her arrest. If the Mother was guilty of any type of neglect or abuse, even if the neglect or abuse was at the hands of someone else (ex: a boyfriend living in the home). If the Mother was actively involved in a dangerous lifestyle (drugs, prostitution, gang life). Extremes like those need to be evaluated individually.

FAQs About Children of Prisoners
Parent in Prison: How to Protect the Well Being of the Child

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    TY. Based on the sources you cite, I found this one: sesamestreet.org/sites/default/files/media_folders/Images/… (Sesame hired experts on this topic.) Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 16:15
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    Good sources, well done. But, "A 7yo will not fully understand what or why this happened. ...they don't have any references for the gray areas between the black and white of breaking the law." They understand the consequences of breaking rules at home. What support do you have for the statement that a child that age won't understand breaking the law? Is it not dependent on the law broken and the maturity of the child involved? The crime is a non-violent, financial one, not a murder. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 15:30
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    Again, a post notice is earned when you make statements as fact. You say to be wary of telling the child about why the parent is incarcerated because 7 yo's "don't have any references for the gray areas". Please provide a source. As to your lawyer comment, we don't normally hire them after a crime because we don't understand we've broken the law, but because we want an expert negotiator. Hiring a lawyer before taking actions (e.g. drawing up a will) is a different matter. That's a red herring. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 16:20
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    There is literature available on the advisability of discussing or not discussing the crime committed by the parent with the child. This is what I'm asking for: a source to back up your statement that it's something their kids would not understand. False analogies help no one. Neither of your sources discuss this, so it's an unsupported statement written as fact. I would not comment if this were an unimportant, minor part of your answer. Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 19:03
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    Otherwise, it appears that either you're not deriving anything from sources and are simply giving your opinion and then some further reading, or else that everything you say is coming from the sources - which it isn't, at least not in this case - and either way it weakens your post to other critical readers, and can (unintentionally) confuse other readers into thinking your opinions are sourced facts.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 21:47

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