Mommy, is Grandpa going to prison as a sex offender?

My father-in-law faces serious criminal charges. What do I tell my 5-year-old daughter?

Published March 28, 2007 10:22AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My upstanding, sweet husband just found out that my father-in-law is probably off to prison because a previously molested teen zeroed in on him, and he made some horrible decisions thereafter. Our daughter is 5, and knows this man as a doting grandpa she sees monthly (always in our presence, by the way) who has never harmed her.

Pending trial, he can't have any contact with kids, and his future looks bleak. What the heck do I say to my 5-year-old? I don't believe in huge, dark family secrets, but what version of the truth is appropriate to explain she probably will not see her grandpa again or even receive cards?

A Mom Recently Moved to Surreality

Dear Mom Moved to Surreality,

Your child, at the age of 5, is not capable of understanding sexual abuse in an adult way. As she matures, her capacity for understanding the facts will increase. But so will her ability to express preferences about how much she wants to hear. It is likely that even when she is intellectually capable of grasping the facts, she will wish to be spared some of the details. Those details do not have to become dark family secrets, however. Their nondisclosure can be a matter of privacy and choice.

One thing is clear: A significant emotional trauma has occurred in your family. It won't just go away. But you can deal with it.

I can't tell you exactly what to say to her. I can urge you to learn how others have dealt with similar situations and decide on an approach that is best for you. To that end I have included some links at the end of this piece that may help you begin this process.

You needn't feel personally responsible for the existence of a fact so difficult to know and tell that parts of it may remain unknown and untold for years to come. I think what you are getting at, quite rightly, is the fear that this fact will poison the atmosphere in your house. But it needn't be an overwhelming source of fear and shame and secrecy. Ideally, you will come to regard it, over time, as one unfortunate fact about your father-in-law. It will have repercussions, true, but if you are conscious of those and have the strength to face them, its damage can be contained.

You do need clarity about exactly what happened. It is not clear to me, from your letter, whether you believe your father-in-law is a sex offender or not. You say "a previously molested teen zeroed in on him, and he made some horrible decisions thereafter." Perhaps the shock of it is still very much with you. It may take time to digest what has happened, and to find words that are truthful but not brutal. I also understand that his case has not gone to trial. But eventually, in order to decide what to tell your 5-year-old, you must decide for yourself what is true. Did your father-in-law do something bad? Is he being punished for it? Is he dangerous to your daughter?

This will not be settled in one short conference with your child but over a lifetime. It will be resolved in the way you confront the fact and carry it and know it and speak of it. Your child will observe you and learn from you. That will be how your child absorbs this terrible knowledge and tries to make sense of it. You won't be telling her in words alone. Nor will you be prepared for the times and settings in which she brings it up -- not when you are prepared with a well-rehearsed explanation, but when you are hurried and thinking of other things, when you least expect it, when other children or adults are present. It may come up when you do not even realize that is what she is talking about. Nor, for her part, will she give extra weight to your official, well-prepared communications over your other more spontaneous or ill-prepared statements; she will listen not only to the words but to your body, how you tense up or turn away, and she will listen to the silences, the narrative's dreadful lacunae. She will listen to it all. There is no escaping her gaze. That means, I think, that it will have to be a story you truly believe and are at peace with.

So I urge you to understand the facts of it as best you can, and then ally yourself with others who have faced similarly dark truths. Watch how they deal with it. This will help you and your daughter. You will be able to look, together, at others who have dealt with similar issues and talk about them. Seeing others with similar issues will relieve the feeling of isolation and secrecy that otherwise might descend upon you.

So the most important thing I can suggest is that you begin the long-term process of building a support network and a repertoire of behaviors to call upon over the years. I have appended a number of links to studies and organizations that may prove useful. I have not personally vetted these organizations and studies, so I cannot endorse them. But I recommend you look at them and try to decide if they can be useful to you.

Before I conclude, may I just say that your upstanding, sweet husband may be having a really hard time with this, too, and that he will need some attention?


From a 2004 article by M. Deborah Corley and Jennifer P. Schneider in the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. Although the article deals specifically with how sex-addicted parents disclose to their children, it may help you think about the issue. It is rich with personal accounts of how people told their children, and it includes a good general discussion of how repressed trauma affects family dynamics:
"The challenge for parents is to consider carefully the context of the disclosure, its contents, timing, who should be present, and how to deal with the emotional responses of the children.

"What kids do want to know depends on their age. It is not necessary or appropriate to disclose to very young children. Preschool children (ages 3-5) ... want to know: Are you going to die or leave me? Am I in trouble? Do you love me? They also need guidelines about their genital touching and curiosity about the bodies, a subject about which sex-addicted families often worry."

Books for children with a parent in prison. Though you don't want to confuse her, such age-appropriate books might help her to imagine where her grandfather is. Here, and also these Australian books for children 4 to 9 here.

See also this site for children of parents in prison.

Children of Incarcerated Parents, a study written by Claire A. Walker, Ph.D., executive director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, March 2005.

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