By raising awareness of young carers, we can give them the support they need

A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with young carers about their experiences. Together, we created superhero characters to explain some of the many things that they do—and some other things they would like to do. As the RCPCH’s children and young people’s engagement manager, I get to meet with lots of groups across the UK. But this particular session stuck with me.

There was a clear sense of pride among the young carers—of how much they love their family member and being able to support them. They talked about being a friend when the person is sad, giving them medicine or simply helping out around the house. We should recognise the skills, emotional intelligence and sense of purpose that a carer role can bring to children and young people.

My superpower is to move people away when people are on the floor [seizure] and to make sure the hospital knows [call 999].

5-year-old young carer

It became apparent, though, that many young carers felt overwhelmed. This was captured in comments such as, “I like to sing to share my feelings”—referencing an internal struggle of feeling tired and lonely but not wanting to let the person down. This highlights the need to check in with young carers, to recognise their needs, and be alert when their role moves into the realm of “inappropriate care”.

When I later shared my findings, many colleagues were surprised by the ages of the children—some carers are as young as 3 years old, a fact that startles the public and professionals alike. Indeed, the image that often comes to mind is a 14-year-old providing light personal care or doing odd jobs around the house. But the workshop was full of examples defying this image.

Above all, this session confirmed the importance of safe spaces. The young carers were having fun, finding friends and being given a chance to explore their role with specialist workers. This space helped to build resilience and provided guidance on keeping young carers safe. Most of all, it offered peer support. This sort of event is a great opportunity to signpost families to ongoing services.

Although our latest State of Child Health report states the number of known young carers, the hidden number is far greater. These are the people who most need to be made aware of available services. We should continue to advocate for and speak with young carers, raising awareness and signposting them to the local and national services that will allow them to get the best possible support.