A child who is looking after their mum or dad, or because of their parents’ condition have to feed and care for their siblings, are often overlooked in discussions about carers.
The 2011 census identified 178,000 young carers in England and Wales alone, but charities such as the
Carers Trustestimate that is just the tip of the iceberg, because many young carers do not self-identify as such.
And with so many adult responsibilities, young carers often miss out on opportunities that other children have to play and to learn.
“The 12 year old caring for their mum or siblings is very hidden, they are very disadvantaged in both schooling and in achievement after school,” explains Thea Stein, chief executive of Carers Trust, the UK’s largest charity for carers.
“Their responsibility for caring is very normative. They may be exhausted from getting up in the night worried about mummy. If she has mental health problems they may worry she will try to harm herself. They might be stressed about what their responsibilities such as picking up medication or looking after younger siblings. Inevitably their school work is affected.
“They won’t be telling their friends what they are going through and won’t want to bring friends home, so they are getting isolated or into trouble. They are doing it out of love, and they need support.”
Carers Trustsays around one in 20 young carers miss school because of the amount of support they have to provide at home. Young carers also have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level - the equivalent to nine grades lower overall than their peers. 26% of young carers have been bullied because of their caring role.
Stein says the Children and Family Act 2014 “is more of a recognition of how to support them”. The legislation tasks local authorities in England with assessing whether a young carer within their area has needs for support and, if so, what those needs are.
She praises politicians in government and opposition who “completely get it” – minister for children Ed Timpson and Labour’s Barbara Keeley are name-checked as champions for young carers in the Commons – and says the situation “It is getting a lot better”.
However, across the country the situation is patchy.
“There is not a school in the country that does not have a young carer,” Stein points out. “They need that support and recognition.”
“It is very important that schools understand it is an issue with their children, especially as they won’t assert themselves as a ‘young carer’
“So the school can talk to them about what a child has to do at home. It can support them through pupil premium and refer them to a carer centre.
“If a young carer is within a sympathetic school environment, that can be transformative.”
Stein gives an example of how schools can approach the issue.
“If you put up a poster saying ‘we are having a meeting for young carers’ you might get four kids turn up. But if you put up a poster saying ‘do you ever have to cook for your parents or dress them or look after your brothers and sisters’ then 100 kids might turn up. They won’t say ‘please can you stop me having to care’, but they want to have a normal life. They want to play, bring friends home and need support for things that are getting too much for them.
“They know they may have a parent with chronic or mental illness, but they want support around them and do what is best.”
Carers Trust is a founder member of
Carers Week, which aims to raise awareness of the “hidden seven million” people who are caring across the country.
“This is the first time there has been a special day for young carers,” says Stein.
“They are even more hidden. The image of a carer is a woman in her 50s looking parents and children.”
But she says that caring for relatives is a growing issue for all of us.
“As the state becomes smaller, the responsibility for families to care for those who are sick is growing, and while caring is a normal part of everyday life, there comes a point the level of care you are being asked to provide, which can be 24 hours a day over years, leaves carers isolated, alone needing help.
“Carers Week is really important - to have a space in time to highlight that if it was not for the millions of people who do endless care the NHS and social care systems would collapse.”
One vital element of Carers Week is connecting with people “who don’t realise they are a carer and show what support is there for them”.
“It’s a major issue for all of us supporting family carers, because caring is very normal in an ordinary family and asking for help is not. It is hard to see what is happening to you – not sleeping at night, cutting back on your social life or work hours.
“It takes a long time to see the role as that of carer not that of wife or mother, for example.
“You can have help and be supported and make the connection to that support - there are people that can help.”