Contributed by Michelle Hassler
When discussing options for family caregivers, spouses and adult children often come to mind. However, the stresses of caregiving extend beyond more traditional caregivers. In fact, many children take on the responsibility of caregiving in the home with statistics that are staggering. Currently, well over a million children in the U.S. meet the criteria of being a caregiver. According to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “1.3 million children spend their time caring for a family member who suffers from a physical or mental illness or substance abuse.” The study also concludes that “on average, children caregivers spend about 2.5 hours per weekday and 4 hours on weekend days caring for their loved ones.” When you think about it, that is a lot of time – especially for a child or teenager.
As caregivers, kids help in many different ways and often provide support for a loved one on both a physical and emotional level. A report on young caregiving by the National Alliance for Caregiving defines a child caregiver as “anyone aged 8 to 18 living in the household who provides unpaid help or care to any person who has an ongoing health problem or chronic illness, or who is elderly, frail, disabled, or mentally ill.” A young caregiver may help with at least one of the following tasks: completing household chores, preparing meals, dressing, feeding, administering medications, talking to health professionals, providing company, giving emotional support, shopping, completing paperwork, paying bills, arranging services, moving around the house or community, bathing, or using the bathroom. As a child, providing needed care can be an overwhelming and even scary burden to bear. Below are some ways you can help young caregivers who may need assistance to improve their own quality of life.
Open the Conversation
Because of the great responsibilities and stresses involved with caregiving, young caregivers often struggle. They may be exhausted, overwhelmed and feel as though they have nowhere to turn. Unfortunately, many young caregivers are not receiving support because schools, community groups, and even extended family and friends are unaware of the situation. Parents may be embarrassed about disclosing medical issues or fear that children could possibly be removed from the home due to specific circumstances. Opening a conversation by casually asking if they need help, if they’ve been overwhelmed at home or are in need of a break might help them to open up about their struggles and needs. Be sure to approach the situation from a positive angle. Express admiration for their dedication and show that you care about their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their loved one. If they open up, you will be better at assessing what type of help they need.
Extend an Invitation
Young caregivers may feel isolated. Caregiving responsibilities could cause them to decline social invitations and participate in age appropriate activities. Sometimes, due to the conditions of a parent, the child might be missing out on special outings such as day trips to an amusement park or a holiday celebration. Include a young caregiver on your next family outing or arrange for their entire family to accompany you. Perhaps, with some extra help, an ailing parent may be able to participate. Taking some time to let a kid be a kid might be a much needed reprieve from day-to-day responsibilities.
Provide Academic Help
Students may be struggling in school due to exhaustion, lack of time, or lack of extra help being provided or coordinated for them. Offer to help with homework or introduce them to an after-school tutoring program. With the permission of the child’s parent, you can talk to teachers or administrators who may be able to provide extra support or insight. Participating in school activities helps to boost self-esteem and allows for kids to socialize. Offer to carpool or help to make arrangements to coordinate a schedule so a young caregiver can explore his or her own hobbies and interests.
Introduce Coping Resources
Kids may be struggling on a psychological level. They may feel the effects of anxiety, depression, or may be expressing behavioral problems. You could suggest resources for mental health counseling to help them cope with the difficulties of caregiving. A support group for caregivers or even a mentoring program may be beneficial for mental health and personal growth. Help kids connect to local resources such as programs at places of worship, schools, community centers, or online resources. Online networks such as the American Association of Caregiving Youth helps to increase awareness and provide support services for youth caregivers and their families by connecting them with healthcare, education and community resources.
Financially, young caregivers may need some assistance. Many kids help by contributing to household bills or paying for prescriptions. Other than providing money directly, you can donate lightly used clothing, drop off some groceries, or give them gift cards to the grocery store or department store. Delivering an occasional case of water or box of diapers may help to ease their financial burden.
Promote Health and Self-Care
With the focus on providing care for another, children may be neglecting to care for themselves. Young caregivers may be lacking nutritious meals, adequate exercise, enough sleep, or emotional support. Take some time to prepare and deliver a meal for the family. Maybe have a particular weeknight that they can expect a meal from you. Invite them to go on a walk with your family or take a trip to the park. Volunteering your time to help their loved one may allow for extra sleep or a much needed break.
Caregiving is a challenging task – for anyone. Being a young caregiver means that you are still trying to figure out your place in the world, navigate friendships, foster talents, and work on balancing responsibilities. Kids help their loved ones in many ways. Dedicate some time to help these extraordinary young people.