Growing up isn’t easy. Most of us can relate to the various pressures and struggles of school, homework, peer pressure, exams, moving away, going to university, meeting new people, making friends etc. At the same time, I’m sure many of us have fond memories of our younger years before adult life and the need for real responsibility kicked in. However, there are some young people who will never get to experience the so called “carefree youth” that many of us take for granted and who will instead have responsibility thrust upon them much too soon. In England there are currently over 160,000 young carers. These are children and young people under 18 who provide care to a family member who is suffering from a mental or physical illness or from a disability or substance abuse. The roles and routines of young carers vary, some assist directly with the medication and physical assistance of their family members while some may help with caring for siblings and assisting around the house with cooking and cleaning etc. However young carers assist their needy family members, the impact of this added responsibility can have worrying effects and presents a challenge for authorities in identifying exactly who is a young carer and the most effective means of offering assistance.
What issues and difficulties do young carers face?
The most obvious effect that being a carer has on a young persons life is the way such responsbility inevitably prevents the individual from having opportunities and taking part in activities which are commonplace for most young people. This could be the freedom to see friends, do homework or take part in after-school clubs and sports etc. However, the effects of being a young carer reach much further than merely limiting a young persons free time. The often stressful and physically draining nature of caring can even effect mental health, such as depression and social anxiety as well as a feeling of exclusion from other young people.
The effect on education and long term prospects should also be considered. Due to the responsibilities of daily caring, many young people struggle in school due to a lack of energy and concentration while also not having the time to complete homework or revise for exams. This means young carers may leave school without strong qualifications and subsequently suffer poor future prospects. Even individuals who do well at school may refrain from seeking further opportunities in higher education due to their commitment to their ongoing care responsibilities. For instance, many young carers are reluctant to leave home or go to university due to fear of abandoning their needy family members.
One of the most worrying barriers in assisting young carers and being able to lessen the negative impact of care work on their lives is the difficulty in identifying them. We know that there are hundreds of thousands of young carers in England, however, these are only the cases which authorities are aware of – there are many other young people who unfortunately suffer in silence. A key difficulty which organisations and professionals seeking to assist young carers face is the fact that this is a hidden problem and we don’t know exactly who is a young carer and in need of assistance. Some young people don’t even realise they are carers, particularly if they have been supporting family members from a very young age. Others may recognise their role as carers yet refrain from seeking support due to shame of having to resort to outside help or seemingly being incapable of taking care of their family. Because caring for family members happens mainly within the home, it is often difficult for teachers, social workers or other professionals to fully understand a young persons situation and to be able to provide positive intervention.
What can be done to assist young carers?
While there are no easy answers or quick solutions for limiting the numbers of young carers in England, there are services available to provide support and assistance for those young people who need it. Both Barnardos and The Children’s Society offer advice and direct support for young people who care for a family member. This is done by providing training, counselling, drop-in sessions and online resources as well as giving young carers the opportunity to engage with activities outside of their role as carers and by giving them a much needed break from their responsibilities. These organisations also work with schools to provide guidance and training on how teachers can support students who care for family members. Overall, these organisations perform vital work in easing the burden placed on young carers and focus on letting children enjoy their childhood and grow up with the same freedoms and opportunities as other young people. Hopefully, with improved knowledge and awareness of the services available to young carers as well as better training for teachers and professionals, this issue can become less of a hidden problem and these young people can receive the support they deserve.
To learn more about young carers and the services available for them please visit the websites below:
The Children’s Society – http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/helping-children/young-carers
Also be sure to check out the vInspired Campaign – “Do you Care?” – which is currently raising awareness of young carers in local schools and communities: