Caring is much more than just being a shoulder to cry on; on a daily basis it can involve doing the cooking, cleaning, food shopping, taking siblings to and from school, and helping a loved one get dressed and take their medicines – all in addition to studying, exams and social development. Jo Whiley, radio DJ, TV presenter and former young carer for her sister, says ‘Being a young carer has made me the person I am, but it’s an exhausting, stressful and emotional experience’.

There are over 166,000 young carers in England, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, because there are many more young carers who are hidden from official view and do not receive any support. This could be because a young person has been caring all of their lives so they don’t realise the extent of the situation they are in; or they feel ashamed because of the stigma around mental health or substance abuse, and they don’t want others to find out about what goes on within their family; or they may not realise that there is support available, so have not sought it out.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (2009) Working Together to Support Young Carers says: ‘The term young carer should be taken to include children and young people under 18 who provide regular or ongoing care and emotional support to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misuses substances. A young carer becomes vulnerable when the level of care-giving and responsibility to the person in need of care becomes excessive or inappropriate for that child, risking impacting on his or her emotional or physical well-being or educational achievement and life chances’.

Berkshire Carers Service help young carers to take some time away from their caring responsibilities and develop life skills. Gyll Curtis-Machin, Engagement Officer from the organisation, reveals how caring can affect young carers’ lives and the work that they do to help ease the strain.

What impact can caring have on young people?

‘I’ve been working for over thirty years with people with autism, cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome, and I recognise that when you are caring for somebody with a condition like that, it’s not just the parent carers who are involved – the siblings are involved as well. I saw the stress of caring for somebody with a neurological condition and, sadly, if the young carers are not supported, they can end up self-harming; they sometimes will end up doing so much work as a young carer that they neglect their school work; they will not be able to concentrate on being a child; they then may end up not going along to school when they should; and they won’t get the qualifications that they need.

Within schools, there will be a number of young carers: children who will perhaps be looking after parents who might have drug or alcohol addictions, and will then be looking after their siblings. They may have to do cooking or cleaning or shopping – all of the things that you wouldn’t expect a child of that age to have to do. You will have a lost generation if you don’t stay aware of these issues – it is avoidable’.

How can you tell whether someone is a young carer?

‘There are certain indicators to spot young carers. If, for example, a child is coming into school and a teacher notices that they are suddenly very dishevelled, they may be a bit snappy, and they’re looking as though they haven’t slept properly – you can look out for all these physical signs. If you know that something is happening within the family: if there is a parent or a grandparent who has become ill or perhaps a sibling has a condition – you look out for these indicators, and maybe start asking some questions, not to frighten the child off, because if things are really bad at home (especially if it’s to do with drink or drugs or perhaps something illegal that the child may find really difficult to talk about), they might not want to disclose that things are not quite so rosy at home. Adults can try and be sensitive; and I would encourage children to speak to their teachers or speak to an adult that they trust. The most important thing a family member, friend, neighbour or teacher can do to support young carers is to encourage them to talk about the help they are giving and how they feel about it, and then point them in the direction of a service like ours that can help them. Young carers can call us themselves or ask an adult to call us on their behalf. We will help them find the right services and organisations to help them and their families’.

What does the Berkshire Carers Service do to help young carers?

‘Berkshire Carers Service offers information and advice to young carers. We also run exciting events like snowboarding, go-karting and paintballing that give them the chance to enjoy time to themselves and meet other young carers. We also work in partnership with other charities and organisations in Berkshire. As a carer, you might not be able to get all of your needs met from one organisation, but you can get a grant or helpline/telephone support from this organisation; and you may be able to get respite care from another organisation.

I spoke to a school teacher, a very sad story, where one of the parents is terminally ill with cancer and has a very short time to live. The other parent is really struggling and there are two children within the family. They are coping with a parent who is about to die, and the other parent who is falling apart and not able to cope. These two children are acting as young carers themselves: they are having to support both parents and there is a huge level of responsibility that these children are expected to cope with. I spoke to the teacher and said “What do you feel is what the children need most?” and she said “They could really do with a bit of respite care, they need to get some time out”. So I said we could offer a grant so that those children would have a sum of money to go and do an activity just for them. It was possible that the little girl might fancy spa treats and the little boy may do an adventure activity. That was something we could offer the children, we can’t whisk them away, we can’t take away the fact that their parent is going to die and we can’t make things better, but what we can do is give them a little bright spot and something to hold on to as a positive memory amongst all this great sadness that has come on the family’.

A national campaign has been launched by the youth charity vInspired, through their Team v leadership programme who have joined forces with The Children’s Society, to raise awareness of the challenges faced by young carers, and of the support services available. Find out more about how you can get involved at www.vinspired.com/doyoucare