Across the UK at least 700,000 children under the age of 18 are expected to help take care of a parent or sibling, taking on duties that would normally be left to an adult. Understandably, many undergo this hardship in secret, ashamed to admit to their teachers or peers the truth of their home situation. As a result, these children tend to forgo their rights to advocacy when it comes to education, health, or simply having a childhood.
The definition of a young carer is a child under 18 having to care for a relative with physical or learning disability, mental health condition, long-term illness or who are affected by drugs or alcohol. Such responsibility, put on such young shoulders, can have lasting effects in terms of mental and physical health.
Last month, in the run up to Carers week, Carers UK published a report analysing the effect governmental cuts had on carers as a whole. In Sickness and in Health found that 84% of adult carers never expected to have to commit themselves to care, and that this commitment had a negative effect on the physical health of 83%, and the mental health of 87%. If this is the case for adult carers who are being properly represented, what are the figures for silent and unrepresented child carers?
According to a 2001 survey, 27% of carers of secondary school age and 13% of primary school aged young carers are experiencing some problems in this area. In recent years, however, it is possible to surmise that the figure has grown considerably. Alongside health concerns, young carers often run into problems at school, whether they are victims of bullying for being â€˜differentâ€™, or struggling to keep up with homework.
Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Childrenâ€™s Society, said: â€œChildren frequently tell us that their caring responsibilities affect their education, wellbeing and futures.â€
To make matters worse, children are kept in the dark about their family memberâ€™s illness, as the adult needing care is often under the impression that knowledge of the severity of their illness will only serve to upset the child further. However, shouldering adult responsibilities gives these children the right to understand why their parent or guardian is incapable of looking after themselves.
So, what is being done to help this secret army of carers?
Julie Griffiths, young carers project manager at Cardiff YMCA, spoke to The Fresh Outlook about their project â€˜Time 4 Meâ€™, which gives children the chance to take a break from caring. As some children can have care commitments reaching up to 50 hours a week, a break is necessary in order for them to live as full a life as possible. Programmes such as this offer young carers the chance to meet other young people with similar responsibilities, opportunities to increase self-esteem and independence, give recognition and support of their role as a young carer and a chance to have their voices heard.
â€œAt the moment weâ€™ve got 80 young people who access our project, aged between seven and 18. They all get at least two respite trips a month. Itâ€™s mostly lead by the young people â€“ they pick where they want to go and we try to find some funding.â€
While The Fresh Outlook spoke to Ms Griffiths, these young people were enjoying their respite in the local park. â€œEven the simplest things â€“ those are sometimes the ones they enjoy the most,â€ she says.
The project doesnâ€™t stop at merely allowing young carers themselves a respite from their many responsibilities:
â€œItâ€™s about giving the families a break as well. It may be a child or adult that is ill in the house, so weâ€™ll take out all the children from that household â€“ providing that they are aged seven to 18, and not the one in care themselves. The parent will say something like â€˜Ok well, I donâ€™t feel so guilty that I canâ€™t take my children out, if my children are being taken out by someone else, then that makes me feel good as well, as I know that theyâ€™re getting some fun that I canâ€™t give themâ€™, so to speak.â€
When asked how successful the project has been so far, Ms Griffiths let the numbers speak for themselves.
â€œWeâ€™re led by the young people â€“ if they donâ€™t enjoy themselves they wonâ€™t continue to come on our trips, so the fact that weâ€™ve got 80 with us at the moment and 20 more due to start as soon as possible â€“ Iâ€™d see that as a success!â€
Regardless of how successful the project has been so far, it can always do with more support, says Ms Griffiths.
â€œI say more money, because we can all do with more money regardless of how much weâ€™ve got â€“ But I think if we had more staff, then weâ€™d be able to do so much more.â€
A survey in Plymouth asked young carers to identify what helped them overcome their difficult situation. One student recommended â€œgetting into the solution of things rather than staying in the problem â€“ to me thatâ€™s the quality of a good teacher or support worker â€“ caring for their pupilsâ€.
While these â€˜take a breakâ€™ type programmes are admirable in what they achieve for individuals, national charities are still attempting to tackle the overall problem of the very existence of young carers, recommending that â€œthe family is supported in the home rather than relying on children to provide careâ€.
Helen Wydell, project manager for Action for Young Carers, said: â€œYoung carers are a very special breed of child but they still have a right to a childhood. The majority of the young carers we know of are proud of their role and what they do. We work to make sure that, as young carers, their voice is heard in all situations, no matter how old they are.
â€œIt is vital to continue to support them and we now know of far more young carers than when we started because they used to be hidden.â€
Hopefully, more young carers will feel safe in coming forward to receive the help they need, and we will eventually be able to find a solution to their problems.
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