Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Young Children and Prison Visits

On a listserv that deals with psychology and the law, the following question was recently asked: “how can the impact on a preschool child be softened when he is taken to visit his father who is in prison after being convicted of murder?”. Some contributors asked why he should be taken at all, given that there would be little relationship in the future. Others pointed out that the father might be exonerated, or even if not exonerated might be released on parole before the child was an adult, and it would be to the benefit of both of them to have some sort of connection. (It happens that in this particular case they had not spent much time together, but that might be considered even more reason to foster the relationship.)

It’s sad that the question needs to be asked at all, but it may be useful to think about it in a general way. Similar questions might be asked about taking a young child to visit the mother in prison, or a parent or grandparent in a hospital, or about paying a visit to a parent or grandparent who lives in another country and for financial or political reasons can’t live near the child. There are even similar concerns when a parent has supervised visitation with a child. All of those are situations where emotional tightropes are being walked. We don’t want the child to be terrified and traumatized by the visit, but neither do we want the visited adult to be so distressed or disappointed or angry that they prefer to break off the relationship rather than suffer that way. Unfortunately, while young children want to be with people they care about, no matter what, adults sometimes feel that unless the contact is very enjoyable and can be counted on for the future, there is no point going on with it. Adults can prefer an abrupt, permanent break to making an effort to preserve a weak or problematic relationship. (Think divorce…)

So, what can we do to make something like a prison visit good enough so a two- or three-year-old is not upset and frightened, and also so the prisoner finds it gratifying enough to be motivated to try to be a parent or grandparent? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the child will be safe and nothing scary or bad will happen in the prison situation.

A first step is to give the child the social support he or she needs to help tolerate this strange experience. It’s clear that young children in unfamiliar surroundings benefit from having familiar people with them. Ideally, the child will be accompanied by an attachment figure-- that means someone to whom he can turn as a secure base when frightened, someone whose presence gives him the security and confidence to explore new places and people. That familiar adult should be with the child throughout the trip, and that means from the time he or she is picked up at home, in the car, going into the prison, in the visiting area, and going home. There should be no handing off to an unfamiliar CPS driver or a corrections official, however kind those people may be.

The presence of a familiar adult buffers or “immunizes” young children against the effects of their natural fear of the unknown. A jail is a sad and scary place to adults who know about crimes and their punishments, and a hospital can also feel like a place of terrible unknown dangers. Young children don’t know from prisons or hospitals, but are no more-- and no less— scared in those institutions than they would be in any other strange place. In all these cases, a familiar, protective adult does a vast amount to make the experience good enough for the child’s comfort.

A second step is to help the child know what is going to happen. There are a lot of things in a prison that are different from the outside world. There will be security procedures, lots of policeman or guards (let’s hope nobody has used threats of these people to discipline the child), people crying or looking sad or angry, and probably a visiting area in which no touching is allowed, but where a more-or-less familiar person is sitting behind a barrier.

You can’t tell a young child about these things-- or rather, you can tell, but it’s not going to sink in. How, then, to prepare? A good possibility is to use dolls or handpuppets to enact what’s going to occur. The child can have a puppet representing himself and talk or move it to practice how to respond to security procedures and so on.

Third, it would be very wise to prepare both the adult visitor and the prisoner for their roles in the meeting. The imprisoned father (in the listserv’s example)may have no idea how to talk to a child who is unfamiliar and whom he can’t touch or kiss. But he might be able to talk about how the child can handle a child puppet and a father puppet-- for instance, he might suggest that the father puppet pick up or hug the child, then ask what the child puppet wants to do.

One more caution about the meeting: this is not the time for the adult visitor and the prisoner to quarrel or cast blame on each other, or even pay much attention to each other. The goal should be to create the maximum pleasant interaction between father and child during the short time available for the meeting. Ideally, each will go away with the sense that they would like to do that again. That outcome will minimize any ill effect on the child, and will help the father feel it’s worthwhile to work toward a genuine relationship with the child.


  1. being an adult who was a child forced on prison visits (both parents convicted of murder while i was 6 weeks old) was something i honestly wish never occurred. i never have and never will consider them my parents. i was put into foster care immediately and for 8 years remained with the same family that eventually adopted me and about to turn 30 i can still recall being forcibly dragged by case workers to go see my biological mother whom i never bonded with to begin with and i will say it most certainly did have a major effect not only on myself but those who raised me. blood is not thicker than water, if you'd like specifics please contact me at the url provided

  2. Thanks very much for your comments. I would like to hear more about this, but no url came through with your message.

  3. Me too. I want to know how many children in the UK are being forced to make prison visits against their will.


  4. I know there's at least one UK reader out there-- can anyone answer this question?

  5. im stuck in this horrible position right now on having an ex husband on remand accused of murder, and also having his teenage son here with me and feeling totally confused as to why and wether or not he wants to visit his father .
    I know my answer is a definite no but my son is 14 and old and mature enough to decide that for himself .

    1. I agree that he is old enough, but he might need a visit or two before he's experienced enough to do that. Then, if he decides he doesn't want to continue, he will need your support in thinking how to convey his reasons to his father without cutting off communication forever. What a difficult position for you, and for him!