Many children and young people are relied upon to assist and support a family member with an illness or disability. These people are often known as 'young carers'.
Young carers are defined as "children and young people who care for and support a family member who has a long-term physical illness, mental illness, disability, drug or alcohol problem". In Australia, almost 4% of young people under 18 are carers, with one-in-ten teenagers caring for someone in their family. Many of these young people wouldn't think of themselves as a young carer because what they do is just part of their normal daily life and routine.
Being a young carer
You may know someone who is a young carer or you may be a young carer yourself. If so, you know that it can be both challenging and rewarding. Young carers have greater obligations and responsibilities than their peers, which can impact their lives on many levels, and can have both short and long-term consequences.
On the downside a young carer may:
- have a compromised social and study life
- be unable to take up some opportunities
- have less financial resources
- have compromised health and wellbeing
On the upside young carers may:
- develop many skills and capacities as people
- show great resilience
- value authentic and meaningful connections with others
- become understanding and patient individuals
How do young people become carers?
There are several, often interconnected reasons why young people become carers. Some of these reasons are:
- no one else is available to care for someone
- there is a lack of accessible support services in an area
- the decision is made to provide care to a family member within the family
What do young carers do?
Caring roles and tasks vary depending on the situation a person is in. Following are examples of the way in which young people may be carers:
- Sole carer in a single parent family - where the parent has a chronic illness such as a mental health problem or substance misuse issue
- Support parents to care for another member of the family - such as a sibling, other parent or elderly grandparent that has a disability or illness
- Unrecognised and hidden carers - takes care of and protects siblings in disrupted family circumstances
Caring roles performed by young carers will typically include household chores and tasks such as:
- minding younger siblings
While lots of young people may be involved in these kinds of tasks at home, the main difference is that a young carer will spend longer on these tasks than their peers. Depending on the situation and needs of those they care for, and to some degree, depending on the young carers own age and gender, other unique caring responsibilities and tasks will vary. Typical tasks shared by carers of all ages include:
- emotional support such as listening and comforting
- personal care tasks such as bathing, dressing, toileting or feeding
- nursing tasks such as handling medications, helping with wound dressings or managing medical needs
- responding to emergencies
When young carers are older than 18 they are more likely to also help with:
- managing finances such as paying bills, budgeting, banking
- attending or providing transport to medical appointments
- giving advice
- organising social activities
Challenges of being a young carer
Australia is one of the countries that recognises young carers in the community, however, many still go unrecognised. Often people in the community assume that a young person wouldn't be in a caring role because it's seen as an "adult" kind of task. People are often surprised at the level of obligation and responsibility some young people have. A teacher, for example, may not realise that a student who comes to school late every day is late because they had to help others in their family before they could go to school.
Having such a big responsibility at a young age and not being recognised can potentially create many stressors and pressures for a young carer, including having:
- different boundaries and roles from those in an average family - for example a parent may become dependant and the young person needs to play the adult/parental role. For this reason some young carers may have missed the experience of a 'normal' childhood, like chances to play with other children, having special outings and enjoying the things many others will have
- limited resources and time to manage other demands - finances may be limited. For example, when a parent needs a lot of care, a young carer may not be able to work as they need to stay and look after them
- to juggle school/university/work alongside caring responsibilities - instead of being with friends after school/university/work or getting their homework assignments done in the evenings, they may be required to do caring tasks. They may also have to spend lunch hours in the library to get homework done or miss school/university/work
- limited opportunities to get ahead in education and career - grades may suffer and they may drop out of school/ university. All these things can effect long-term education and career prospects
- limited social opportunities with friends because of time restraints and obligations - this may leave a young carer feeling isolated from peers and friends
- feelings of being torn between duty and personal interests - there can be pressure from many sides including expectations from family, school and peers
- feelings of embarrassment - like having to go home and help out while their friends get to socialise and do fun stuff. Sometimes young carers don't want to tell their friends about the situation at home, and so withdraw from others. This can leave them with few friendships or none at all. Young carers may find it's hard to explain to friends why they can't go out with them
- difficulties with their own health and well being - young carers may not get enough sleep or proper nutrition due to time and financial constraints. Lack of support and recognition may lead to their own mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety
For all these reasons it is quite normal for young carers to feel resentful at times and wish they had a "normal life". Some young carers will even think they are being selfish for feeling this way.
Rewards of caring
Despite the many challenges and compromises a young carer makes, most see it as a rewarding experience that has contributed to their personal development. Sometimes young carers find it easier to acknowledge the good things about caring for a family member when they look back on this time.
Some of the gains young people have reported include:
- experiencing a lot of personal growth within their situation
- becoming resourceful and emotionally competent
- learning how to tune into the needs of others and develop compassion
- knowing how to provide many levels of support in practical and emotional ways
- being competent and independent
- having their eyes opened to reality early in life, resulting in developing realistic expectations of life
- being well equipped with life skills, having wisdom and resilience
- feeling a sense of achievement and having good self esteem
- going on to careers in professional caring roles or become advocates for others in the community
Practical support is helpful and includes anything that can assist a young carer to manage their lives, responsibilities, emotional and physical needs.
Young carers often find it really helpful to connect with other carers - to know that someone else understands and that they aren't alone. Given the added responsibility they have, it is important that they also find ways to take care of themselves so they can continue to be resilient.
A number of support groups, services and websites focus on young carers. Many of these have been established by other young carers and people that know what it is like to be a young carer. These services can help by:
- linking young carers with other young carers
- providing information about extra support available through local services and the community
- providing emotional support for young carers and assisting them to identify ways to improve things in their lives, including getting support, planning breaks and respite
- assisting young carers in short and long term planning around the care and support needs of themselves and those they care for
If you or someone you know is a young carer, it can help to find out more information and to reach out for support. If you would like to talk about what's going on for you or a friend, or if you require more information or support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or use our web or email counselling services. Kids Helpline counsellors will listen and help you work out what might help.
- Young Carers NSW Retrieved from: http://www.youngcarersnsw.asn.au on 4 November 2011.
Published: 24 April 2012