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telling kids their father is in prison

flmomma08's picture

Hi all! Quick back story for those who don't know, my ex DH and I are divorced due to his drug addiction and he is currently in prison (drug related charges). We have 2 kids - 5 and 1 year old. He has been telling our 5 year old he is at work and I have been going along with it but I am fed up. He is not expected to be out until March (he has been there since this past February). She does not believe his story. She doesn't understand why she can't see him or call him. 


I spoke to a child counselor who recommended telling her the truth as she is going to think he doesn't want to see her or that I am keeping her from seeing him but she said he should be a part of telling her. I talked to him about it and he does not want to tell her but doesn't care if I tell her. I don't feel like it is my responsibility to tell her! He is there because of his own actions and I think he should explain himself (in an age appropriate way, of course). 


His birthday and father's day are coming up and she is NOT going to understand why she can't see him unless something is said. He will also miss both the kid's birthdays and all of the holidays. 


Any advice or ideas?

JRI's picture

My mother owned a business that specialized in childrens books.   I can't remember the title, but I recall there was a book written for children that helped explain it.  I'm sure if you Google this topic, you'll find something.  A librarian might be able to help, too.  Good luck.

BethAnne's picture

What a great suggestion. Books are great for young kids to understand complicated life events as they clearly and simply explain what is happening and the kids can reread them when they need to. I might also look at books that deal with emotions as I am sure the children might be feeling some new emotions that are difficult for them to deal with. My Many Colored Days by Dr Seuss is really good for emotions. When I Miss You (The Way I Feel Books) by Cornelia Maude Spelman was good for my SD when we moved away from her mother - you might want to check if it is suitable for your circumstances though. That series has other books that are also worth looking at to see if there is anything else that might be helpful.

flmomma08's picture

Thank you! The counselor recommended a few books as well so I am definitely going to check them out!

ndc's picture

Perhaps you could focus on the illness (addiction) rather than the crime, and tell her that because of that he cannot come to see her even though he very much wants to. Will he be going to rehab after jail? 

If he's not going to tell her I would definitely do it, because she will not trust you in the future if you lie to her (even if it's by omission or just playing along with him).

flmomma08's picture

That's one thing I am struggling with because I don't want to tell her too much at her age but obviously something has to be said. I totally agree, I don't want her to think I am keeping her from him or to not believe me in the future. I am not sure if he is going to rehab after jail - he was not sentenced to rehab, so that will be on him whether he decides to go or not. 

advice.only2's picture

I agree with JRI a book would probably be good, like how he put this on you...just another selfish move of a drug addict.

One thing we told Spawn when Meth Mouth kept getting arrested was that parents aren't perfect, they make bad decisions and sometimes break the law and have to suffer the consequences of their bad choices. For us it was about emphasizing to Spawn that Meth Mouth is human, just because she's an adult and mother doesn't mean she can't makes mistakes. Spawn was 10 the first time her mom got arrested.

flmomma08's picture

I even offered to talk to her WITH him and he still refuses! He did a video call with her from prison last weekend and still told her he's at work! He's ridiculous. 

I like your wording on that, I will use that when I do talk with my daughter. Thank you.

BethAnne's picture

It might also be worth contacting a local non-profit who help families who have an incarcerated parent. They might have resources to help you. 

MaryBethC's picture

Does your daughter understand time outs? Since she is so young it's best to be very simple. Let her know that dad wasn't being good so he got put in a big person's time out.

notarelative's picture

Time out is a great idea. It's something a child can relate to, whereas prison is hard for a five year old to understand. And prison is basically a time out from society.

Understand also that kids don't have the adult sense of shame about prisons. Expect the five year old to mention it in school, if she attends, or in casual conversation when you least expect it. I worked in a school and children who had parents in prison would often discuss their visits or mail they received from the incarcerated family member, so I'd expect a video chat would yield a comment.

The fact that he is lying to his child about where he is, does not bode well for his recovery. The step recovery programs I am familiar with require an admission that you are powerless over your addiction and make amends to those you have hurt. He has hurt his daughter by not telling her (a child's version) of the truth. His actions do not seem (to me) those of a father working a recovery program.

Sandybeaches's picture

"The fact that he is lying to his child about where he is, does not bode well for his recovery. The step recovery programs I am familiar with require an admission that you are powerless over your addiction and make amends to those you have hurt. He has hurt his daughter by not telling her (a child's version) of the truth. His actions do not seem (to me) those of a father working a recovery program."

I understand where you are coming from but the step you are referring to also states to make amends when it won't harm or injure the person you need to make amends to.  This is a 5 year old that wouldn't understand anything about the steps of recovery or where he is.  If he was getting life in prison maybe but he will be out I think OP said in February  If he gets his act together he will have years to make amends.  No reason to tell her at age 5 to unburden himself from something she could never understand.  If she were 12 - 15 maybe but 5 absolutely not.  

notarelative's picture

I agree that what he should say to a 5 year old is not what he would say to an older child. I'm not advocating that he tell her the details. I don't want him to unburden himself. I'm just don't think daddy's working is acceptable. I'd rather he admitted that daddy did something he shouldn't and is in time out, than lie and say he is working. How long can the pretense of working be kept up? Secrets almost always come out. My guess is that too many people know and the child will eventually hear someone talking about it. I define amends to this 5 year old as saying he regrets what he did and wishes he wasn't in time out and could see her. Pretending to be working is not taking responsibility for your actions.

Sandybeaches's picture

Still it's a 5 year old.  Anything said in detail even now that I think about it even time out is going to make the child ask questions that she can not understand the answers to at 5.  I rethink it now and I think out of town working is best.  I don't think we need to explain incarceration to a 5 year old when they couldn't possibly understand.  If he had life in prison the day would come but at 5 this could actually work the opposite and taint the relationship in the future.  Let her be a kid, think her dad works out of town until she is old enough to explain things too.  

notarelative's picture

I'm not sure what the magic age for telling is. This guy has a release date..He has/ had a serious problem. What happens if he comes home and his problem has not been dealt with and reoccurs? He won't be safe to have unsupervised visits. How do you then explain that dad's home from his work trip, but you can't go anywhere with him. 

My thought is that between now and then this kid is going to hear someone discussing dad, prison, and the release date. And then dad's carefully built facade will fall.

Also note the child counselor the poster spoke to recommended telling her. It's not the OP resisting telling, it's the guy in prison who wants to hide why he is there. The guy who does not want to own up to what he did.

Sandybeaches's picture

And respect your thoughts BUT the magic age is not 5. Why not let this child have her innocence as long as she can. I am not addressing OP at all except to give my opinion. I am also giving my opinion as someone who was told news that was too large for my age and saw the repercussions it had throughout my life. 

I was addressing your thought not OP's. I happen to disagree. My opinion is not to protect the dad I couldn't care less about his thoughts, feelings or story he made his bed. This is about protecting the 5 year old until she is old enough to grasp any of what is going on.  

When he gets out and has more issues that can be addressed then. He isn't doing life he will be out soon.  This is a one step at a time situation I will defer back to this is a 5 year old. The scars for being told something that is too much for her to understand verses a little untruth to protect her.  I would go with the little untruth for now. Nothing to be gained from confusing a 5 year old. 

flmomma08's picture

I've been really torn about whether I should tell her and what to say. I really wanted to keep her innocent as long as possible but once I realized she didn't believe the work story anymore, I knew it had to be addressed somehow. 

Sandybeaches's picture

I am just saying as someone who was given news that was way too old for me to understand at a very young age it can change you and make a child worry about things that they shouldn't have to.

  I would try to hold it off a little longer at least until he is out and see what happens. Since she is doing video visits change your story to he is out of town working. And he works very long hours so he has very little time. I know some disagree with the lie but I think it is all about saving the child's innocence. She is only 5. Her father has issues she shouldn't have to suffer for that any more than she has to. It is just my thoughts and I feel for you it's a very hard position for you to be in and I commend you.

Good luck to you. You sound like a great mom

Sandybeaches's picture

Time out is a great idea!!! 

If it were me I would keep my explanation as simple as possible.  Not only because of her age but until you find out what his intentions were to dealing with his addiction as he might not be out for long if he isn't planning to deal with his problem.  You also want him working on it before he becomes a regular, unsupervised part of her life.  If his problem was bad enough to put him in jail he has a lot to deal with before being a part of a 5 year olds life.  

flmomma08's picture

So little back story, he has had a drug problem for the past few years, which is what lead to our divorce. He has already been in and out of rehab and eventually started having legal trouble. I got sole custody of our kids and I supervise their visits (or someone I trust like his mom or sister). Before he went to jail, I was typically meeting him somewhere one day per weekend for them to spend time together. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for him but I am not getting my hopes up. 

1dad4kids's picture

Is she unable to visit him in prison? I'm not suggesting it, just didn't see it mentioned here. 

flmomma08's picture

They are doing video visits right now. They had their first one last weekend and have another one scheduled for this coming weekend. 

Rags's picture

If possible, even take her to visit him.

Kids should have the facts.  In an age appropriate manner.

Sandybeaches's picture

He isn't doing life no reason to take a 5 year old into a prison. 

What age appropriate facts are there to prison for a 5 year old?