Too young to care?

Practice profile

Liz Curry is schools liaison officer for an innovative young
carers’ project in Salford, run by The Princess Royal Trust for
Carers and funded by the DfES. She works with schools to raise
awareness of young carers’ problems, to increase their level of
support, and do some individual case work.

The children are identified by their behavioural problems, but she
hopes to help teaching staff recognise that truancy, lack of
concentration and troublesome behaviour might be caused by
difficulties at home, so they can help their pupils from the

Liz talks to the whole family, but says the one-to-one support she
provides makes a real difference: “It’s important to find out what
the young carers think and not what the schools or parents say the
difficulties are. We identify some problems and some solutions: for
instance, the care package might need changing; maybe they can go
to school a bit later; maybe we can access the behaviour and
learning mentors while they are in school to help them concentrate
a bit more.


Childhood as shown in picture books and poems is often a carefree
affair – all “young and easy under the apple boughs”. Although we
know that’s not universally true, we still cling to the notion that
that’s the way it should be. For some young people who provide the
sort of care that an adult normally gives to a relative who is ill,
disabled or has a mental health problem, childhood is anything but

Researchers have found that children as young as five are taking on
caring roles, and more often girls than boys. Children may cook,
clean, take their relative to the lavatory, give them medication,
and pay the bills. They also look after family members with mental
illnesses and provide emotional support that can have a
far-reaching impact on their own lives. It’s mostly mothers who are
on the receiving end of care, but a quarter of young carers look
after disabled siblings.


Some young carers bear the physical toll inflicted by, for
instance, regularly disturbed nights, or having to lift an adult
who has fallen, or cooking without knowing how to do it safely.
They may have to cope with a parent’s suicide bid or drinking
binge, and the consequences for their own mental health. As one
fifth of young carers and their families have no support from
anyone other than a specialist young carers’ project, many
underachieve at school and become lonely and isolated.


Teachers are often unaware of their home situation and the child
can slip into a cycle of truanting and worsening relationships with
school. The Children’s Society explains the possible sequence: the
child misses school because their family member is unwell or they
have to look after siblings; they are afraid to give the real
reason so make up unconvincing excuses and receive a detention;
they can’t stay because they are needed at home and are in deeper
trouble; it starts to become easier to stay at home, where they are


Truancy often leads to poor attainment, but anxiety about their ill
or disabled relative can leave young carers unable to concentrate
even when they do get to school. One child told researchers: “I
just worry when I’ve got to go to school… I ring him (father) up
at break and dinner to see how he is… I can’t concentrate at
school, even when I am there, there’s no point in going


Young carers who can’t join out-of-school activities because of the
constraints of caring become socially isolated, and this is
compounded by their premature maturity in relation to their


One young carer, signing on to a young carers’ chat site as White
Wolf, describes his experience of watching his mother having a
frightening epileptic fit, and says: “I have been 18 for nine years
– in reality I’m only 15 years old.”


And many young carers are bullied because of their different
home-life, which adds to the stress they already feel and
exacerbates educational difficulties.


Recent research by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
found that most schools had no policy for supporting children who
missed schools because of caring responsibilities. They call for a
“whole school” approach, where schools identify young carers and
put in place mechanisms to support them, with a named contact who
has sound knowledge of the issues and relevant literature. Only
then will young carers be able to recover the childhood they are
entitled to, and achieve their full potential in and out of the


‘I’m shouted at to help my mum’

Eighteen-year-old Catherine has been caring for her mother, who has
multiple sclerosis, since she was 11. Her father had to give up his
job. She told a UK Youth national conference about a typical day
when her mother is really ill:


1am: I’m being shouted at to help my mum off the settee and into
the wheelchair, push her to the bathroom, help my dad to lift her
on to the toilet, then push her back to the living room.


This is repeated at 2.10am, 4.10am and 5.55am.
By 6.20 I need sleep, but mum is not feeling well. I go to bed but
am too worried to sleep. I feel so shattered I don’t feel like
going to school. I get drinks.


8.15am: I shout at my Dad to make sure he is downstairs to care for


Two-minute walk to school. Most of my lessons I am asked to hand in
schoolwork but I haven’t had time to do it. This happens all day. I
can’t concentrate in lessons.


Teachers won’t accept excuses. I arrange a meeting with my Young
Carers’ support worker. He gets me a coffee – saves me from being
shouted at.


4.45pm: I take over from my dad, take mum to the toilet and get
drinks, try to raise her spirits. I help in the evening and prepare
the meal.


I dread the night.



What are the facts?

Many young people and parents keep quiet about the level of support
a child provides because they feel guilty, or fear separation, so
getting an accurate measure of children’s caring responsibilities
is difficult. But research indicates that there are:

  • 175,000 young carers aged under 18 in the UK (2001 census).

  • One third provide care for 11-20 hours, but 2% care for 50 hours or
    more per week.

  • One in 10 has caring responsibilities for more than one

  • 27% of young carers at secondary school age are missing school or
    having educational difficulties; 13% at primary school age.

  • 920,000 children live in homes where one or both parents have an
    alcohol problem.

  • Mothers are the majority care recipients, especially in lone parent
    families (70%); in two parent families almost half (46%) are
    disabled siblings.

  • One fifth of young carers and their families receive no other
    support than their contact with a specialist Young Carers

  • Young Carers in the UK, the 2004 report, Dearden and Becker,
    Loughborough University




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