Figures published today show there are 244,000 young people under 19 caring for a parent or sibling; 23,000 are younger than 9 years. The data is published by the Office for National Statistics and comes from the 2011 census.
A young carer is someone who is regularly cleaning, cooking, shopping, checking medication, helping with personal care, interpreting or paying bills on behalf of a parent. About a quarter are looking after a parent with a physical disability, another quarter have a parent with mental ill-health. One fifth help care for a disabled sibling.
Children look after sick parents or disabled siblings because they are part of the family and family members look after each other. However for some the responsibilities become too heavy and long term. Young carers may need to be home soon after school so miss out on activities their peers take for granted like play, sports leisure activities and just friendships. They may have limited time for homework so school work can suffer leading to poorer exam results and limited opportunities.
Most council areas have a young carers project often run by a voluntary organisation. Young carers say they need to be recognised especially by their teachers; they need information about services that can help the person they are caring for; someone to talk to when things get tough and chances to have a break and chill out.
However the real issue is identifying who the young carers are, councils having been trying to crack that problem for over 20 years since they first realised some children were looking after their parents. The doctors or care workers that the parent sees do not ask who looks after them at home; teachers, playworkers and youth workers tend not to enquire about the home life of children or young people either. And it doesn't seem fair to expect young carers or parents to identify themselves as 'young carers' many will simply see it as part of their family life.
A lot of effort goes in to training all those professionals to be aware of young carers, to sensitively enquire if a child or young person is caring for someone else, and to know who to put the young person in touch with if they are a young carer.
Children North East does not run any projects specifically for young carers but when we do come across them in our work with families, we always put them in touch with local projects that can help them. And with their permission, we will tactfully inform the school about home life and request that they make adjustments for the young carer.