The press of the moment is arriving. It is highly likely that the mom (divorced) will be incarcerated for 1+ years (first incarceration). (She has been in jail for 3 weeks now with no bail allowed. Child living with dad, who has primary custody, so not a big change in living conditions, just no weekends with mom.) The crimes are all financial.

The question is, how to explain to an 8 yo that his mother is in jail? What to volunteer and what to be prepared to say with respect to questions on such topics as:
a. How much detail on the current reason for incarceration (parole violation)
b. How much detail on past crime (embezzlement)
c. Mention other past criminal convictions, all financial (dating back decades)
d. Mention new, pending charges (theft)?
e. Explain goal of prison (rehab, punishment)
f. Describe how to stay in contact while in prison
g. Length of time before get out?
h. Why did mom do this/these? (Need? Poor judgment?)
i. Unconditional love
j. What other topics should be on this list

Update: Sesame Street has some materials on this: https://www.sesamestreet.org/sites/default/files/media_folders/Images/Incarceration_Guide.pdf Pg 11 has some suggestions on breaking the news.

https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/incarceration/ Especially “Visiting a parent in prison” (This URL leads to other materials, but without a change to the URL)


There is a very interesting study concentrating on the experiences of the children of incarcerated parents (as opposed to adults providing the information.) The interviews were done with children ranging in age from 8-17. Parental offenses included (in descending order) drug charges, theft, homicide, probation violation, and a mixture of other (DWI, etc.). While 73% of caretakers stated that the children were aware of the offense committed, 43% stated they didn't know, and another 38% answered vaguely: "[they] did bad things" or "they hurt someone".

Though the article is long and covers many aspects of the feelings and beliefs of kids with an incarcerated parent, one line sticks out:

In the absence of information, children will often turn to their imaginations.

The problem with this is that kids can imagine some pretty awful (and untrue) things.

Do kids understand the nature of breaking the law?

Throughout most of the interviews, the issue of fairness around the parent being in prison surfaced. Many, though not all, of the children indicated that their [parent] committed some type of a crime and as a consequence had to go to prison while simultaneously sharing that they missed and loved their parent and did not want them in prison.

"Yeah, because he broke the law... I love him, but it's fair."

Some kids thought it was unfair, but based this on the fact that the punishment deprived them of their parent.

It was evident that many of the children... were starting to recognize that there should be consequences for illegal behavior, yet those consequences negatively affected them by denying them access to the parents they loved.

The 8 year olds had quite a lot to say indicating an understanding of crime and punishment, but not much understanding of jail conditions.

While I will not address each and every point of your question, I hope this provides you with a better understanding of the depth of understanding kids have. So I'll just leave you with a final question: is it better for the child to know what the crime was, or to leave it to their imagination?

Children of incarcerated parents: Challenges and resiliency, in their own words May be behind a paywall.

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    +1 I like your answer, and well done researching an actual study. But this study looks at children ONLY in the present. As a classroom teacher for many years I have seen the impact this has over time. Talk to a child 2 years later after absorbing the truth, living with it, making up stories to fill in the gaps - it can be absolutely traumatizing. I've seen straight A students deteriorate later because they haven't been able to properly cope with it. IMHO kids need to be eased into something of this magnitude. – MacItaly Feb 8 '19 at 15:45
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    @MacItaly - The paper discusses a lot of aspects of the children over time, not only in the present. Having a parent in jail is embarrassing, isolating, traumatizing, and life changing. But resilience is about how to handle the truth with integrity, courage, and optimism, not how to live with a lie. – anongoodnurse Feb 9 '19 at 4:13

Let the downvotes begin...

I totally disagree with MacItaly. I would absolutely not pin behavior like that on sickness. In spite, and it is definitely spite, of what PhD holding "specialists" really advocate for labelling common indecency to an illness, I don't happen to think so at all. The actual definition and culmination of becoming a criminal by definition isn't all that important compared to the understanding of societal structure and what people will and will not tolerate.

I have an 8 year old. She can definitely understand the whys and hows. She's amazed I'm not in jail right now considering how much respect I have for the structure of the world around me. If I got thrown in the pin her mom wouldn't have to say much more than - Yeah, someone finally got fed up with him. Maybe he should have learned more about the law before deciding to disregard it. He'll be out in a year unless he's good... so pretty much a year.

I'd expect your concern may be in the avenues of avoiding an impression that carves out a similar path for the child. Or a fascination with people who demonstrate that behavior. Like giving them a pass because his mother was like that. To that I guess I wouldn't step around the concept of doing bad things equals being treated like a person who does bad things. Every kid learns the idea of "trouble" pretty early in life. Understanding that adults also get in trouble isn't a bad thing and is not particularly hard to explain. But being in trouble should never be excused as a byproduct of a sickness unless it actually, irrefutably is.

You listed a series of questions that all come down to the same general question - do you sugar coat this? Or do you spell it out literally? Or something in between?

Personally I wouldn't sugar coat anything. But I also wouldn't hold it against the mother that she happened to get put in jail. Actually, I wouldn't even speak of it negatively at all but that's just me. My words of encouragement would go to the mother and not so much the child. For him, I would treat it as a societal expectation and an axiomatic rule in life that the well being and respect of everything surrounding you is essential in preventing that eco system from collapsing in on itself. Sounds wordy, but it can be applied to something as simple as the honey badger and the honeyguide (the bird that allegedly spots bees for the badger). In real life, the badger would be totally fine. But in the example, if the badger doesn't leave a little honeycomb for the guide, neither one will eat tomorrow and everything falls apart. This time, your mom ate the whole honeycomb.

Sounds a little like sugar coating, but I consider sugar coating to be a little more like "mommy went away to get better" which I feel is worse than a lie. Mommy actually went away because the world is an unfair place and she did what she had to do to survive. Just so happens what she did operates outside the tolerance of the world around her and she was just careless enough to finally have them throw her in jail for it. She may not have known of the various alternatives to financial crimes that could have done the same job without being technically illegal. In other words, there's almost always another way.

We all commit crimes every day. I live in a region that is number one in the whole country for idiots running red lights. Yes, you can go to jail for that. Keep doing it and you go back to jail. Keep doing it and you could go back for a whole year. Same for parking tickets, jay walking, violence, fraud, theft, or generally just being a nuisance. What defines a criminal is simply the fact that something was enough of a problem that it warranted making a law to keep it under control. Often those laws don't make sense and sometimes they are in effect but never enforced. But none of those red light running "criminals" are sick. They do that because they disregard the expectations of the ecosystem they belong to.

What his mom did was an action taken out of circumstance, and probably a wealth of experience up to that point that internally suggested no other sane way to accomplish the same goal. Not a disease unless we want the word disease to have the same meaning as the word genius after the apple store imposed the genius bar upon us. You can explain this to an 8 year old. You can rationalize it without glorifying or vilifying it. You can explain it is not something to be revered or despised and that his own life is his to choose, same as his mother. She chose to do things the world disagreed with and had to go to jail. He doesn't have to do the same thing, but he doesn't have to hate her for doing it either.

Just my two cents.

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    No downvote here. +1 I agree that 8 year olds aren't in the least bit stupid, and though some crimes are committed by the mentally ill, most crimes are not, and to frame them this way does people with mental illnesses a true disservice. I also agree that naming the crime is not the same as labeling the parent as a bad person. I know truly lovely people who have gone to jail for embezzlement. (Granted, I don't know Bernie Madoff.) – anongoodnurse Feb 8 '19 at 3:41
  • @anongoodnurse - true, that's why I phrased it "But being in trouble should never be excused as a byproduct of a sickness unless it actually, irrefutably is." which is a short way of saying that same sentiment. I knew a guy who truly was sick but not in an ill way. Irrefutably criminal as a byproduct of whatever blocked his mind from comprehending the law. He was extremely kind and honest, but if he needed something he saw no wrong in taking it. Like he couldn't see why it was wrong to do so. His crimes made him rich and poor. He died young. That was a perfect example of sickness as a cause – Kai Qing Feb 8 '19 at 3:57
  • Also, I realize my response sounds counterpointing. I think I failed to convey that I agree with you that labelling crimes commonly as mental issues is not helping people with actual mental issues. In fact, it can be hard to find people who commit crimes because of an illness. That's why I mention the guy I knew. There's a lot more to that story if you want to hear it in a private chat. – Kai Qing Feb 8 '19 at 4:02
  • I trust you, and you did not miscommunicate, I understood the intent and meaning. :) – anongoodnurse Feb 8 '19 at 4:45

The Sesame Street material mentiones the single most important approach:


Honesty is important.Talking to your child about her parent’s incarceration can be scary. You may worry about the questions she will ask. As difficult as it is, tell the truth. It is the best way to help her to feel loved and to build a special, trusting bond.

If you do not explain the reason why his mother is gone/incarcerated to your child in an understandable manner your son will very likely react with self-blame:

  • He will feel guilty for his mother leaving him, thinking he did something wrong.

Truth is also important because it builds trust between you and your child. If you lie and tell she is sick, your child will want to visit her. How will you explain that he cannot? The network of lies will grow, and the strain of keeping it intact will be difficult for you. And what will it do to him if he learns later where she really was? He will know that his father lies to him, which is both hurtful and undermines your relationship.

As for how to explain the situation, that's not that difficult. Use the example of taking about death or sex or politics. Tune it down to the cognitive level of an eight year old. You could tell your son that:

  • His mother made a mistake.
  • Now she has to learn not to make that mistake again.
  • She will return in one year.

You could explain some simple facts about your legal system, the purpose of a jail, and whatever he might ask about, but I would not push more detail on him than he requires.

As this will be an ongoing topic for him, you don't have to get it all right in the first talk. He'll likely not grasp the whole consequences of "your mom is gone for a year" at first, and some things will only become clear to him when he visits her there (which I hope you do) and as time passes and he learns what it means to him that he still cannot see her.

Maybe he can write letters to her, call her, and, of course, visit her in jail. You may be surprised to find that that could be more interesting than depressing to a child, if you don't act sad and depressed yourself (if you can, coach his mom to not break down in front of him).


While I have never dealt with a situation like this directly, I was a middle school teacher for a long time, and I had to deal with students who had parents in jail. Here are a few pointers that I've picked up...

a. How much detail on the current reason for incarceration (parole violation)

None. The cognitive abilities of an 8 y/o and understanding the "why's" and "how's" is limited. The child understands right from wrong, but they won't fully understand the details of what happened. I'm assuming we want to keep the perception of the mother positive, and that she just 'made a mistake.' You could also say, 'mom is sick and needs some help.'

b. How much detail on past crime (embezzlement)

None. The perception of mommy stealing equates to mommy is bad.

c. Mention other past criminal convictions, all financial (dating back decades)


d. Mention new, pending charges (theft)?

The mother's theft could be looked at as a sickness. A sickness that she needs help with. An 8 y/o understands being sick and wanting/needing to get better. This is a concept the child can cope with.

e. Explain goal of prison (rehab, punishment)

I would focus on the healing aspect of prison. That the mother is really sick and is getting help right now.

f. Describe how to stay in contact while in prison

Writing letters and phone calls. This would require the mother to know what is being told to the child and to be on-board with saying that she is sick, instead of prison.

g. Length of time before get out?

If we don't want the mom to have a negative perception, you can say that there is a judge. And the judge is the one who says whether or not the mother is healthy enough to go home. This places blame on some outside entity that the child can have a negative feeling toward. If you blame the mother and say she has to stay for (some period) of time, then the child may wonder why she just doesn't come home. Almost as if the mother is choosing to stay rather than come see the child.

h. Why did mom do this/these? (Need? Poor judgment?)

I would stick with the sickness bit.

i. Unconditional love

The child will still understand that the mother loves him/her, even though she is sick and getting help.

j. What other topics should be on this list

You've covered a lot. If I understand your intentions correctly, then the main idea here is to help the child cope without seeing his/her mother for an extended period of time. We still want the child to succeed in other areas of life - school, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. It will be a hard, arduous process and will require some extra attention for the child at times, but this is something that can be handled - albeit delicately.

Best of luck.

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    I believe this answer seriously short-changes the 8 year old's ability to understand, Can you support any oF these proclamations? E.g.: "The cognitive abilities of an 8 y/o and understanding the "why's" and "how's" is limited. The child understands right from wrong, but they won't fully understand the details of what happened." – anongoodnurse Feb 8 '19 at 5:10
  • @anongoodnurse Great question. The prefrontal cortex and frontal lob of the brain do not start developing until the teen years, and finish somewhere in the mid twenties. This part of the brain controls meta-cognition and most of our deeper thinking skills. My answer would have been completely different for a teen. For this reason I said that an 8 y/o wouldn't "understand" the whys and hows. You may tell them and explain it to them, but as for them truly understanding, it's just not likely. Their brain is still in the concrete - right/wrong - black/white stages of development. – MacItaly Feb 8 '19 at 15:39
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    Maybe my kids are outside the norm (tbh, they probably are), but neither of them had the limited cognitive abilities or mainly black and white world perception you are describing when they were at that age. I also am strictly against this - IMHO- sugarcoating approach of generally explaining crime as “sickness“ and blaming a judge for a parent’s absence. The latter because it fosters a negative attitude towards the legal system, the former because it contradicts the very basic principle of how actions have consequences (and because a real illness would imply guiltlessness). – Stephie Feb 8 '19 at 20:19
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    @MacItaly - The PFC and FL aren't "missing/stagnant" in youth; they just continue to mature until the early/mid-to late 20s. I am not a neurologist, but I have had a significant amount of training regarding at-risk youths. I believe amazing changes happen in the PFC cortex which are still not completely clear, but your representation is, I'm sure, incorrect. "Even during the first year of life, however, significant maturational changes occur that help make important changes in the cognitive advances at one year of age." – anongoodnurse Feb 9 '19 at 4:19

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