16/01/2015 09:53 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

I'm A Child Carer

pre-teen boy kneeling by dishwasher and putting a plate inside, family members out of focus in the background at kitchen table

Every morning and evening, Megan Cassell cooks, cleans and helps everyone in her household get dressed. Most days, she puts a wash on and once a week, she does a supermarket shop.
No, Megan is not a mum. She is just 10 years old.

"My mum has MS and my little sister has a learning disability, so it's up to me to do the things that grown-ups would normally do," she explains.

Megan is one of 178,000 young carers in England and Wales – that is, people under the age of 18, who provide unpaid care for a family member or a friend. Mind you, says Anna Morris, senior policy manager for the charity Carers Trust, that figure is almost certainly an underestimation.

"Those are just the ones we know about from the census. Many families don't admit to having a young carer in their home and many young carers themselves just get on with their role without identifying it as 'caring'. In fact, research by the BBC in 2010 pointed to a figure of 700,000. Yet most people don't have a clue what these youngsters go through."

Even many of Megan's friends don't know she's a carer. "I don't like to talk about it at school because it draws attention to me," she explains. "Also, I worry they'll think it means my mum is bad to me and she isn't. It's not her fault she needs extra help or that my sister does. Social services help, but not enough."

There are many reasons that children wind up as carers. "It might be that someone in the family has a physical illness or disability or a long-term health condition or it might be that they have a mental health condition or issues with alcohol or drugs," explains Anna.

"Consequently, the type of caring responsibilities vary considerably too," she says. "It might be helping Mum to get out of bed and get dressed, as well as bathing her. It might be helping a brother or sister get ready for school. It might be helping around the house with cleaning or regularly doing the shopping. Or it might be a much more emotionally supportive role."

Young carers can be as young as four years old, she says. "You do get children this young doing things like helping to make sandwiches for lunch and putting washes on."

Although Max Cherry is 16 now, he has been a carer as long as he can remember. "I'm part of a family of six children and I care for my brother Jake, who is 14 and can't eat, drink, walk or talk. It falls to me to help because my two older siblings don't live here and the others are too young. As for my mum, Jake is too heavy for her to move him about and my dad is usually out at work."

Every morning, Max gets Jake out of bed, changes his nappy and gets him dressed and fed. He also helps him with his medicines. "When I'm at college, my mum does what she can and then I help out again in the evenings."

Like many carers, Max says he doesn't mind his role. "I don't resent it. I want to help. But it is tiring and sometimes I have to miss out on things like playing football with my mates because I have to do something like getting Jake off the school bus. It's also emotionally stressful. I worry a lot about him. But people don't really understand. Almost without fail, when I tell people I'm a young carer, they just don't get it, assuming that it can't be that bad. They don't realise how hard it actually is."

For a long time, 13-year-old Nina Patel didn't tell anyone she is the main carer for her dad, who was was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2009. "I don't know much about the disease, but it means his hands shake and he can't carry things. He also forgets stuff. So as well as helping around the flat, I do the shopping, cooking and washing up. But for years, I didn't tell people – not even my closest friends or teachers. I didn't think anyone would understand. I was also embarrassed and worried I might be taken away from him."

Unfortunately, Nina's silence meant she regularly got into trouble at school. "I often didn't have time to do my homework after all the cooking, cleaning and shopping. I was just too tired and I would get into trouble, including detentions," explains Nina.

Anna says this is not uncommon. "All too often, young carers' behaviour is misunderstood. For instance, they may be late or absent because of what is going on at home. They may miss homework or a parent might go into hospital the night before an exam. All this kind of thing has implications for further and higher education too, as well as their chances in the job market. We would like to see a lot more schools identifying and supporting young carers to do well."

Also worrying is the extent to which young carers are bullied, with a survey by Carers Trust last year finding that over a quarter of children are bullied specifically because of their caring roles. "I was concerned I might be teased, although thankfully that hasn't happened," says Nina.

Eventually, Nina opened up to a counsellor at school. "It was a relief to talk about it, to get it off my chest. But it is still tiring. If we lived nearer our relatives, they would be able to help out. But it's too far for them to come very often."

The long term effects make for alarming reading, with many young carers developing problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm, many of which can stay with them into their adult lives.

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When Young Children Have to Help Care For a Disabled Family Member