While Covid-19 and the current lockdown has major implications for all families, it poses particular challenges for young carers and their families, explains Dr Michael Wyness from the University of Warwick’s Centre for Education Studies.
Despite an increase in awareness of and support for young carers, there is still limited state recognition of the role that many thousands of children and young people in England play in meeting the emotional and physical needs of chronically ill parents. Data from 2011 census suggests that 166,000 children in England have significant caring responsibilities for parents with a range of physical and psychological conditions. There are a number of ways the lockdown will raise new challenges these young people.
1. Heath support
Regular and routine medical support for chronically ill parents living at home may become difficult to sustain. Where an increasing proportion of medical work is diverted to the virus, health support within the community may become less frequent. Children may have to take on more caring responsibilities within the home for their chronically ill parents.
The lockdown will have particular implications for vulnerable categories of parents at home that need to be ‘shielded’ from others. The parents of young carers are likely to come into this category. Parents rely on support from their children for certain things, in other respects chronically ill parents are still able to provide for their children. Parents and children build up a shared responsibility over time for various aspects of each other’s care. Shielding disrupts this routine, putting children under particular pressure to minimise contact with others. This could also have negative effects on young carers’ mental health.
Young carers are used to popping out for small amounts of food and medicine to the local corner shop and pharmacy within walking distance of their homes. While many of these shops remain open, young carers will also have to travel longer distances to supermarkets for food and medicine. Moreover, children will have to follow the strict rules on shopping, sometimes with minimal instruction from adults. This will add more stress to children with caring responsibilities, highly sensitised to the vulnerable status of their parents.
Research suggests that young carers have more difficulty attending school, completing their homework and maintaining friendship networks than children with no caring responsibilities. However, young carers continue to juggle their caring responsibilities with their schooling and socialising. The school becomes an important social focal point for young carers: support groups in some schools, set up by teachers and young carers, value the routine social contact that children have with their peers and friends. The closure of schools due to Covid-19 has temporarily suspended valuable face-to-face social engagement with others and young carers will struggle to maintain their school work at home without consistent adult support.
5. Respite and relaxation
In the absence of statutory support for young carers, local organisations and charities are often the main source of advice and respite. Many of the charities will provide information and support through their websites. Nevertheless, there is now no opportunity to physically interact with other young carers and gain valuable time outside caring and schooling for rest and relaxation.
Underlying challenges and Covid-19
While new challenges present themselves, there are also two ongoing and underlying challenges which young carers cope with anyway which are compounded by Covid-19.
1. Fear of disclosure
There is still a tendency to let as few people as possible know about the extent of children and young people’s caring responsibilities. There is what we might refer to as a ‘dark figure’ of young carers, that is, data on the numbers of child carers is based on recorded and reported figures, rather than the absolute figures of all young carers.
Despite the more positive support for young carers from schools and organisations, we still know less about the numbers of children and their parents who have not disclosed the level of care undertaken by children to the authorities. The fear of family break up through state involvement and the perceived stigma attached to having caring responsibilities probably acts to restrict our awareness of the extent to which children are caring for their parents.
Given that families with young carers are likely to be poorer and have lived through a fairly sustained period of austerity, there is less reason among carers and their parents to trust the motives and practices of the services which may be able to help. Moreover, the physical and emotional work that constitutes much of the caring responsibilities of children and young people in some instances can be viewed as a major safeguarding issue.
2. Mental health issues
A second issue amplified by Covid-19 is the potential for these challenges to compromise the mental health of young carers. The pressure to refrain from contact with others; the lack of face-to-face contact with those outside the home and the absence of periods, sometimes moments, of respite, may take their toll on young carers’ wellbeing.
Despite these challenges, young carers like most children and young people are now relying on digital technology to keep them in touch with others during the lockdown. Research suggests that a disproportionate number of young carers are living in poverty, making it difficult for some to have regular contact with others on-line. Nevertheless, virtual communities of young people do exist and access to social media where possible can mitigate some of the stress felt by young carers and their families.
Children’s wellbeing should also be assessed against the rise of the concept of childhood resilience, which has become a popular reference point within research and practitioners’ communities. Children and young people are stronger, tougher and more competent now and we can sometimes underestimate children’s capacities to take on caring responsibilities.
Suggestions for those in contact with young carers
Make sure that a virtual support network still functions in keeping in contact with young carers. Most families and young carers should be able to connect remotely with medical personnel, designated teachers, those teachers that have built up a rapport with young carers at school, and those in the voluntary sectors with which young carers have contact.
Those medical personnel still in face-to-face contact with the parents of young carers need to reassure the young carers, and make sure that they are coping with the lockdown.
Neighbours and those living close to young carers should make regular contact with young carers. While this is difficult during the lock down, a wave from a window or a telephone call will make a difference to the young carers and their families.
Neighbours and family living in other households should keep in touch and make sure the young carers and their parents are able to get food and essential medicines.
Young carers should try to access online advice where possible.
Here are some websites with information as well as advice:
23 April 2020
Dr Michael Wyness is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Education Studies. His work explores the sociologies of childhood and education. His book Childhood and Society (2019) has just gone into a third edition. His previous books include Childhood, Culture and Society (2018 Sage) Childhood (2015 Polity); Contesting Childhood (1999 Routledge) and Schooling Welfare and Parental Responsibility (1995 Falmer).
His research interests are in children's participation and human rights; childhood and theory, children's transitions and home-school relations. He is currently running two funded projects exploring the educational needs and identity formation of young migrants.
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