Chronic illnesses often reach far beyond the patient, impacting the whole family. But what happens when the closest family members are children?

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A Young Carer is a child, teenager, or young adult who looks after another person’s needs. These needs could involve tasks such as cooking and cleaning, or they might be more advanced if the person needing care is unable to do things for themselves such as getting washed and dressed.

Some young people are help to care for someone in conjunction with other family members or friends and do not always recognise themselves as Young Carers. But even if they are working with someone else, they can be classed as such (particularly if these tasks take up a lot of their time and are more than just helping out around the house). Becoming a Young Carer or relying on a Young Carer is rarely a conscious decision, these children are providing this support in situations where there has been no alternative, increasing their role as the situation presents itself.

In the most recent census, it was estimated that there were around 500,000 Young Carers across the UK, with 10,000 of these registered as Infant Young Carers, children between the ages of five and seven. Young Carers reported an average of 48 school days missed because of their caring role (25% of their school year), and when they did attend, 68% percent have reported issues with bullying and 39% said that nobody in their school was aware of their caring role.

There are a further 376,000 Young Adult Carers in the UK aged 16–25. Those aged between 16 and 18 years are twice as likely to be not in education or training, and of those who are, 56% reported that they were struggling with their work because of their caring role, 17% said they may have to drop out for reasons associated with their caring role, and 13% said that they may have to drop out for related financial reasons.

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Caring for someone can be a challenge, and for Young Carers in the throes of learning and maturing, spending most of their time providing care can lead to them missing out on the life that children should, and need, to have to build and enjoy their future. So, with 1.2% of the UK population providing care support at such a young age, what can be done to assist them in balancing these roles with their childhood?

LISTEN

Though it may sound obvious, if a Young Carer has chosen to speak to you about their situation, do not bombard them with questions, simply listen to what they have to say. By giving them your full attention you will notice unspoken words in their body language and tone. A Young Carer may have heightened levels of empathy due to their situation, it is therefore important to keep your own emotions in check in order to allow the Young Carer the opportunity to disclose and discuss their own feelings.

BE HONEST AND OPEN

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Once a Young Carer has opened up to you, take the time to have a sympathetic chat. Ask how they’re doing, and give them the opportunity to discuss their responsibilities and concerns. Talking through things and knowing someone is there to listen can really help the Young Carer feel supported. Remember to also praise them for taking on such a difficult responsibility. This helps remind the student that they’re not in trouble if they’ve been struggling in any other aspects of their life such as school. You want them to feel like what they’re doing is positive, but also a burden they shouldn’t carry alone.

HELP THEM ACCESS SUPPORT

Most Young Carers won’t know that there are numerous support opportunities available for them, particularly if they do not recognise themselves as such. Find Young Carer organisations in your area and encourage them to attend. Mixing with other Young Carers helps them to recognise that their situation is unusual for a person their age, but also not uncommon. It shows them that they’re not alone, and that help is available.

REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE HELPING THEM AND NOT THE PATIENT

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It is our instinct to rush in and cook a meal or do the washing up, but this is not the support needed. In Young Carer situations, there are usually fixed routines followed at home and to disrupt these could only cause further upset. Instead talk to the parents/guardians about things you can do to support the Young Carer. These needn’t be grand gestures; take time to sit with the Young Carer, ask about their day, read a book with them, go to the park; just be present.

BE PATIENT

Speaking to you and asking for help is a huge step for a Young Carer and they may feel overwhelmed. Reassure them that you are working to their time frames and are there to support them. It may seem daunting to approach different organisations but again, assure them that they are no longer doing this alone and that none of the support networks out there are looking for a negative to punish, only for the positives they can do. You want to help them regain some of their time and get the person they’re caring for additional support, ultimately allowing them both to lead even more fulfilling lives.