How can we support young carers?

Young carers experience more psychological and emotional problems than their peers. This effect is made worse if they receive insufficient support. Inge (young carer), Bas Schepers (teacher) and Sandra Stakel (psychiatric nurse and child coach) are all involved in our Me-We project. They share their thoughts about possible opportunities and solutions.

Together with European partners and the ‘Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau’ (Netherlands Institute for Social Research ), we conduct research on how we can support young carers. Among other things, we involve them in our meetings to explore important themes with them. We are also developing an app that will enable young carers to come into contact with one another and give reliable information about help and support. This is important because research findings show that contact with peers works best for reducing psychological problems.

Understanding mother’s problems

Inge (16) is also participant in these meetings: ‘My mother has a bipolar disorder and when I searched for information about it, I could only find English websites. I really missed reliable information in Dutch. More public awareness is also needed about what a young carer is. Even if your brother has autism and your parents take care of him, you still can be a young carer – because you do worry about him a lot! There should be more awareness raising in secondary schools as well. For example, by young carers giving presentations in classes.’

Aunt Joy

Sandra Stakel also thinks that “being worried” can be very stressful for a young person. ‘An important difference is that you might be able to arrange for professional household support, but no one can take over your worries.’ In addition to her work as a psychiatric nurse and a certified child coach, she took the initiative to found ‘Tante Joy’ (Aunt Joy). ‘Tante Joy’ organises guest weekends and (fun) days for young carers. So that they can escape from a worrisome home situation and be in a safe place where they can meet and feel supported.

What can healthcare professionals do?

Stakel: ‘If parents are being treated, inquiries about the parenting role should be standard. To what extent is a parent able to fulfil this role if he has a severe depression, for example? When children are being treated, it should also be compulsory to pay attention to the “healthy” children (in the family). How, for instance, do parents divide their attention? Parents often say that young carers do not need attention, but that does not mean that they are not in need. Health professionals should ask parents to bring their children to the interview as well. In the Netherlands we have the “Kind Check” (Child Check) for the early detection of domestic violence and child abuse. This includes, for example, the question of who takes care of the children. Such a “Kind Check” is already an improvement, but I think our attention for these children should go beyond that. Regular attention for all children in the family should be part of all treatments or support.’

A broader definition

‘Finally, what strikes me is that each municipality in the Netherlands uses a different age limit for young carers. Most activities are for children from 8 years old. But a child of 5 cannot indicate that he is a young carer, nor that he is overburdened. Many organisations in the Netherlands also take a narrow definition as a starting point, for example: you are a caregiver if you deliver care for at least eight hours a week for a period of three months! But how are you going to classify the emotional burden of this? I therefore advocate a broadening of the definition in order not to fall short on young carers.’

Role of teachers

In addition to healthcare professionals, teachers also have an important role in identifying young carers in their classes. This is really essential because young carers will not ask for help easily. One of the problems that young carers are dealing with is that they have less time for home work because of their caring tasks. For example, Maike (17) already told in an earlier interview that she is not always able to do her homework, due to the care for her mother. (link to interview).

Social map for teachers

As a teacher at a school for secondary vocational education, Bas Schepers also had young carers in his classes. ‘Young carers will not easily tell what they are going through at home. That is why a teacher must have an open and attentive attitude to be able to identify any signals. This sounds logical, but in practice it appears that teachers are more inclined to concentrate mainly on the content of the lessons. Furthermore, it helps to know that as a teacher you do not have to solve all problems. For a young carer, it already helps a lot if you ask regularly how the child is doing, and that he knows that you give permission to be absent more often. Finally, as a teacher you need to know which organisations you can refer to if a young person has a problem or question. For instance, care organisations and training programmes can facilitate this by creating a social map with an overview of institutions that can provide support.’

Contact for this project:
van Zoest

Senior Advisor and Team Leader