“Don’t Be Afraid”: How to Explain an Arrest to Children

The saddest and most unfortunate situation for a child is to witness their parents’ arrest. Different age groups respond differently, but children of all ages from toddler to youth must be respectfully spoken to and have the situation explained to them to reverse the effects of any trauma down the line. Here are a few safe and proven ways to speak to a child about their parents’ arrest.

Ages 1-4

For toddlers, their perception of a parents’ arrest is an immediate fear of separation, wanting protection, fear of parents getting hurt. At this age, the child may stand up to the law enforcement official or show signs of anger. Explain to the child in this age range in a comforting voice that you know he or she loves his mom or dad, and tell the child that no one will hurt “Mommy” or “Daddy”. It’s best to speak in a low but slow tone and avoid any surprises. The best possible strategy is to take children out of the way to a safe place.

Steer away from using any type of force on the parent when the child is near, and be prepared to possibly forcibly remove the child from the parent, since children at this will usually grab hold of their parents and not let go. At this stage, children cannot distinguish any harm to their parent as harm to themselves, so be delicate in telling the child that their parent must go.

Ages 4-5

At this stage, children still perceive any harm done to their parent as harm to themselves and will hold onto their parents to keep from losing them. However, the child may believe that their parent’s arrest is due to their own bad behavior or desire. When speaking to the child, get down on their level and speak to them about the basic facts of the matter. “Daddy has to go to the police station now so they can talk to him about a few things.” If a grandparent is on the way to watch over the child, let them know that as well. But make sure you tell the child that the arrest isn’t their fault, and avoid making any promises you don’t know if you can keep.

If the arrest is a raid or a DV, use any means necessary to make sure the child does not see any police handcuffing or guns and remove the child completely out of the room. In these instances, the child will react and may attempt to hit the officer to defend their parent. Even if the police are coming to remove an abusive parent, know that if the child had any connection to that parent, they will react to police hurting their abusive parent.

Ages 6-12

By school age, children are thinking about what right and wrong mean, and want things to be fair. It’s important to speak to the child as honestly as possible, telling them that their parent needs to see the police. Tell the child that you will let them know when they can next see their parent. Again, reinforce to the child that you know you love their parent, and the situation is not their fault.

The child may cry, hit the officer to defend their parent, run, or become totally unresponsive and “self-soothe” by rocking themselves back and forth. Giving a sweater or scarf of the parent to the child or offering them a stuffed animal is one way to assuage the child. If you know the child will be present during the arrest, do everything in your power to remove them from the scene. At this age, the child could agree with the police officer about their arrest of a batterer parent, but be worried about the consequences of taking sides with the police when the parent is watching.

Ages 13-18

Children and teens at this age fear the loss of their parents and may show anger toward the officer and the parent. They may even attempt to get in the way of the arrest so they can defend their parent. It’s best in these situations to let the teen give vent to their fear or their feelings. Expect a person at this age to vent their anger toward the officer and start to rage or be extremely sensitive to touch. They may go mute to questioning or rock themselves back and forth to self-soothe and try to safeguard themselves from the police, thinking they may be arrested as well. Teens may hit back the arresting officers, so be aware. Some will want to help their parent but be unsure as to how.

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