You arrive home from a hard day's work and you're shattered, but there's still more to be done: dinner needs cooking, the washing machine's been on since you left this morning and you just haven't had the chance to get on with any of the cleaning. You'll have to see how it's gone today, how much help one or other of your parents might require that night. Your mum might need her medicine. Your dad might need lifting and helping into bed. Homework? Forget homework. There's too much other work to be done at home.
Such are just some of the difficulties faced by young carers, children under the age of 18 who provide substantial, regular unpaid care, largely to family members affected by a range of issues such as physical disability, mental health or substance misuse. Their numbers are staggering. A Scottish study of more than 11,000 secondary school students revealed nearly one in eight students provided care for someone at home and that one in three of those claimed no one was aware of it. This invisibility is down to a complex range of reasons. Caring for another member of the family is sometimes just seen as a normal responsibility. So too can this disinclination to identify be, as the Department for Education's 'The lives of young carers in England' report states, due to 'a degree of reluctance, even anxiety, among families in disclosing caring responsibilities'. That's a serious problem: not having a firm grip on numbers means we lack the ability to adequately cater for their needs.
The care and attention young carers pay to those who need support is testimony to the positive aspects of care-giving. Young carers can feel positive about their ability to provide for someone. They are nurturers who recognise the importance of their role and value their closeness to family, their maturity and the practical life skills they have gained from offering such assistance. Yet these positive aspects do not outweigh the 'significant restrictions in their development, participation and opportunities' faced by many young carers. According to one study, almost a quarter of the young people who took part in research were caring for someone with a mental health problem, more than half were caring for someone with a disability and around 10% looking after someone with a drug or alcohol problem.
The form of the care they provide can be extensive; household chores, administration, nursing-type tasks, intimate personal care, such as washing and going to the toilet, and providing emotional support. Such responsibilities can have serious and potentially damaging consequences. Young carers are 'twice as likely to report having a limiting illness or disability themselves'. They can have poor diets; studies show that they are less likely to have started school on a full stomach. Young carers are more likely to report emotional, physical and learning difficulties, from dyslexia, to mental health problems, eczema or psoriasis to stomach problems, and are also far more likely to report less sleep than their peers. They focus their care-giving on others and might not have anyone to care for them.
Going to school can provide some relief, where 'the expectations placed on them are more age appropriate and less emotionally taxing than those they face at home', but school life isn't without problems. With responsibilities elsewhere, attendance can be problematic. Approximately one in twenty miss school as a direct result of their caring responsibilities. This poor attendance can be further exacerbated by bullying. Some 25.3% of young carers say they've been bullied at school, compared to 15.2% of their peers. Absence from school has other knock-on effects. Homework and catching-up are challenging, given their limited leisure time outside of school. Consequently, young carers achieve significantly lower in their GCSEs.
Beyond these most immediate concerns, the future, particularly their futures, can easily play second fiddle to the demands of the here and now. Young carers may be unable to leave home when their peers might and when they do, they worry about who will look after those they care for, if they're not on hand to offer it themselves. There is also the very real problem of a lack of aspiration. Some young carers have been found to display what Aldridge & Becker define as 'limited horizons'. Seeing their own future constrained by their responsibilities, young carers are 'less likely to see themselves entering further or higher education'.
Whilst young carers may share the broader teenage worries of their peers, their additional responsibilities and the consequences of them mean that young carers have little time to engage in self-help practices. Beyond the care they give, their own limited leisure time, their health issues and school, it is not surprising that mentally and emotionally, the strain can soon show. Young carers can feel isolated, given they have less opportunity to socialise with their peers. They can experience feelings of anxiety, anger, depression and resentment, as well as resignation that this is simply their fate. As a result, young carers are more likely to have lower self-esteem and depression or other mental health conditions.
So how can we help this difficult situation? In the first instance, it's a question of recognition. We must ensure young carers feel comfortable disclosing their status and that we are providing effective support to improve their physical and mental health so they might have the opportunity to fulfil their potential as their peers do, without support services unintentionally reinforcing their caring role. We must bear in mind that each of these young carers is an individual with unique responsibilities who must not be excluded from the process of decision-making. Within schools, discussion of such caring roles would be a good start, helping all young people understand the reality of other people's lives. Most of all, we need to make sure they are able to be young.