Who might be a young carer?
A young carer may be helping with the physical care of a sibling, parent or grandparent with an illness or long term condition; a young carer might be witnessing and supporting a parent’s mental illness a young carer may be trying to look after a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction.
A young carer might be
- a 10 year old whose Dad has a cancer that is terminal
- a 12 year old who’s caring for her mum with a heroin addiction
- a 15 year old whose grandma has come to live with his family when she was no longer able to live independently.
I was a young carer. I didn’t define myself as one at the time; I am not even sure the term ‘young carer’ was used back in the 1990s. About 13 years ago I started volunteering at Young Carer groups, supporting at youth clubs and being a befriender to a number of young carers. Now, as a counsellor, I hear young carers’ intimate, often unspoken stories, that at times have echoes of my own and others I have heard over the years
I have learned about a type of a loneliness that young carers often feel. Imagine if a sort of cage separated you from your friends and peers so that, even when you are in the among those you love and have friendships with, you can’t wholly or lightly be part of things, you are not free to just ‘be’ in the games or activities you are doing. Sometimes you may feel you are not free to be the person you actually are. It seems as if the cage has formed around you because you have stepped so closely into another person’s intimate world that you can’t be fully present in your own world of school, college, friendships and activities.
Stepping outside of the cage for any length of time can feel impossible for some young carers, perhaps because of daily caring responsibilities, perhaps because of the emotional burden of feeling you want to help make somebody else ‘better’.
Complex emotions are compressed into the cage as you try to maintain an exterior of normality and connection with others your age. While a unique intimate relationship is growing with the person you are caring for, a jumble of powerful emotions need to be contained. Love, responsibility, resentment, worry, anger, frustration, fear and guilt might be just some of the emotions squeezing into the cage. Sometimes these emotions might feel contradictory and confused.
As a counsellor I was trained in the discipline of stepping gently into another person’s inner world while keeping a foot firmly placed in my own. I am struck by what a big ask this is of a child or young person whose own developmental footsteps are, understandably, not yet steady or sure.
Friends and teachers often don’t notice the cage – many young carers I have met are swift at pulling an invisibility cloak over it, working hard to keep separate their home and school/college lives. To add to this, some young carers feel they must keep their caring world hidden for fear of bullying, particularly perhaps if they are caring for parent with a mental illness or drug/ alcohol addiction.
As loneliness takes root, it becomes harder to believe we can be understood, that we are not alone. If we can’t make full sense of what we do, see and feel, it is natural to wonder how friends might be able to understand.
There is a cruel irony that for many young carers, by the time their friends of the same age may have the emotional wisdom to ‘really get it’, the young carer is likely to now be an adult. They are possibly still caring and still someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, but they are no longer a young carer, no longer balancing between different worlds.
BBC Radio 1’s Teen Hero in 2014, a young carer, Caitlin Buckard (then 15) seemed to recognise that kind of loneliness:
“Caring at home can make you feel isolated, but having someone to talk to can mean you realise you are understood.”
It can feel fragile and risky sharing your inner world, especially when it is so closely entwined with another’s. Being someone who young carers talk to, I know that loneliness is something that fundamentally changes with connection.
Imagine if the emotions inside the cage begin to be understood, calmed and feel safe. Imagine that together we carefully take the cage down so you can step forward into adulthood with awareness, acceptance and readiness.
Recently a young carer gave me a straightforward answer to how she wanted her adult life to be. ‘’Simple’’.
My response? “That makes sense”.
This is not intended to be a definitive narrative of all young carers’ experiences. There are many other stories, differing experiences and understandings. I welcome hearing these and learning more about the experience of young carers so please feel free to comment and join in conversations. Best wishes, Davina
For more information about young carers and support take a look at these sites and conversations