Most kids take their downtime for granted.
When they're not at school or doing homework, most are free to play with their friends (either physically or online), while the grownup stuff like cooking and cleaning is left, well, to the grownups.
And that's as it should be.
But what happens when the adult responsibilities fall to the child?
Who are young carers?
A young carer is a child or young person who looks after a family member who may have a physical disability, a long-term illness, a mental health problem or drug / alcohol dependencies. This can be any family member, but is usually a parent – and usually mum.
Throughout the year, up and down the country, a generation of children are proudly and diligently looking after a family member while taking on household chores.
Some of the tasks young carers take on include:
- tidying the house
- helping wash and dress the person they're caring for
- administering medicines
- providing emotional support
- looking after a younger brother or sister
- cooking meals
- washing the dishes
- helping with bills and money / collecting benefits
That’s tough for most adults – no child should have to shoulder such responsibilities alone.
A young carer’s story
Megan became a young carer when she was eight years old when her mother became seriously ill with depression. While her father was at work, Megan quickly took up the mantle of looking after her little brother Ben, who was just three.
By the time she was nine, Megan was making Ben’s dinner, preparing his packed lunches for school, getting him dressed and doing the family laundry. Her mum would self-harm every day, leaving Megan consumed with worry and with the responsibility of bandaging her mother's wounds.
The impact of being a young carer
Research has shown that the impact of this sort of caring role can be profound and long-lasting. Young carers like Megan are often tired in school, with many struggling to keep up academically and many being bullied for being ‘different’.
Last year, we polled more than 800 teachers and found that 40% of them were not confident they would recognise a young carer in their class.
Of those polled, more than a third said they knew of young carers in their school who were not sufficiently supported. Just under a third didn’t think their school had any methods for supporting young carers at all.
Being a young carer also impacts on mental health. Anxiety is a particular problem among young carers – they can become isolated and fear being different. They also worry about their cared-for family member(s) when they’re away from home.
How getting help... helps
When Megan was 11, social services referred her to one of our young carer services.
At a service like this, books, games and icebreaker activities are used as a way of encouraging younger children to talk about their worries and to increase confidence levels.
For older young people it’s more about sitting down and having a conversation, then looking at practical ways to deal with problems.
Some groups are specifically designed for young people living with a parent with mental health problems, like Megan. These sessions delve into what that’s like, and teach strategies to cope with certain situations.
It might sound strange to those on the outside, but a lot of these kids don’t even know that they’re young carers. When Megan first met her support worker she was wary and wouldn’t even speak to her. She did keep coming back though, and eventually began to trust others and open up.
She even started participating in group sessions, where she met other young carers who became her friends. Megan also learnt anger management techniques, how to identify and cope with being bullied and how to develop her self-esteem.
As well as one-to-one and group sessions, some of our young carer services organise days out so that the young people can play and mess around – just like other kids do.
Services also work with schools so that teachers can be supportive. Sometimes that's as simple as allowing someone like Megan to phone home to check on her mum at lunchtime.
A positive outcome
Megan is now in her early twenties. She has been to university, wants to be a maths teacher and has recently become a mum. Her own mother is living in a secure unit and the family visit once a week to play games and spend quality time together.
Megan also meets with local councillors, children’s services and schools to educate them on how to identify and support young carers.
What can be done to help young carers?
As adult social care becomes more squeezed than ever, more and more young people are providing care for family members. Megan’s story has a positive outcome, but many other young carers are either under-supported or missed entirely.
It is vital that young carers are identified – there can be a stigma or fear that prevents some families from seeking help – and that they then get the appropriate support to minimise the long-term impact on them.
While many young carers are proud to look after their families and should be applauded for doing so, the reality is that far too many of our young people are sacrificing their futures – and their mental health – to cover what should be covered by our social care system.
It is imperative that schools, local authorities, commissioners, health services and all other agencies involved in adult and child care step up their efforts to support young carers.
Otherwise we are facing another generation of young people sacrificing their futures to take care of the ones they love.
If you’d like to help young carers like Megan, please make a donation today.
*Names have been changed and models have been used in order to protect identities.