What Happens Children Care for Sick Loved Ones

Taking care of a loved one who is sick is never easy. But for children and adolescents, caring for a family member with a chronic illness can be especially taxing.

A systematic review published earlier this year in the Journal of Compassionate Health Care explains what we know about the lives of young caregivers and explores ways we can more effectively help them. The review combined information from 48 studies to paint a picture of the lives of young caregivers.

Surveys estimate that, in Western countries, between 3 and 4 percent of young people under age 18 help to care for a relative. The majority of the children who help with caregiving live in single-parent households and, in most cases, they are caring for their mothers. Grandmothers and chronically-ill siblings are two other common recipients of care from children.

Studies show these children spend a lot of time caring for their relative. One study found they spend more than 5 hours a week helping their relative, and that this can go on for seven to ten years.

Children take on a wide variety of responsibilities including preparing meals, helping to dress and undress their relative, providing company, monitoring the person who is sick, and more.

Caregiving can detract from a child’s normal development. Child caregivers are more likely to feel worried and more likely to stay at home, rather than spend time on extracurricular activities or with friends. Often times, the illness creates financial difficulties. As a result, child caregivers are less likely to ask for money for leisure activities or school functions.

Young caregivers are more likely to feel difficult emotions. They can feel guilty anytime they are not providing care for their relative. They may feel anxious or afraid for their loved one or embarrassed about their family member’s condition.

Several studies found young caregivers are more likely to struggle in school because they find it difficult to juggle the demands of caregiving with school work. They may also have difficulty concentrating at school. And they may lack parental support for learning at home.

While caring for a relative is a tremendous burden for most children, it can also have a positive impact on their development. Child caregivers tend to have stronger emotional bonds with their family members and a sense of responsibility to contribute to their families.

The review also identifies ways to support young caregivers to improve their lives.

Research finds young caregivers often look to teachers for emotional support. Training educators and school employees about young caregivers can help provide these young people with an emotional support network and reduce the stigma associated with caregiving.

Medical professionals should try to identify the extent and type of help given by children, and then fill in those gaps with social services. Social workers, counselors, and therapists can work together to develop individual solutions to support patients and their children. Providing relief for the families can give children more time and space for their own needs, which can help them to better cope with their loved one’s illness.

The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research expands, strengthens, and speeds the connections between research, policy, and practice to enhance human development and well-being.

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