More Than 3 Million Youth Play a Caregiving Role. They Need Our Support.

The most recent Caregiving in the U.S. report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that in addition to 48 million adults who are family caregivers, 3.4 million children under the age of 18 are assisting with care.

The study shows that 7% of adult caregivers report the presence of a child caregiver. In addition, a 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 23.6% of middle school students and 16.4% of high school students in Florida public schools were participating in some type of care for a family member.

Just as adults might miss work when caregiving, children may miss school. And just as adults may get to work late, children may arrive to school late — and be present only physically, not mentally. Young people who help caregive can experience issues with poverty, prenatal care, premature births, an inability to achieve a third-grade reading level, child abuse and failure to graduate high school.

I spoke with Connie Siskowski, president and founder of American Association of Caregiving Youth, about how to support these youth.

[See: 14 Ways Caregivers Can Care for Themselves.]

Looking the Wrong Way

It’s easy to spot a school’s dropout rate and figure the school or teachers are to blame. But that misses the point: We need to consider the social and emotional barriers to children’s ability to learn. Family caregiving should be recognized as a social determinant of health. An adult caregiver may not have family and support mechanisms around, so they’ll turn to their child for help. The kids will step up to the plate — but often, won’t be prepared.

Intervention as Early as Sixth Grade

AACY provides services in school and outside of school (starting with grade six), and the organization has a growing affiliate network. They often partner with other nonprofits so that children serving as caregivers can be connected to resources in their own communities.

There are issues that we seldom think about in this population of caregivers. For example, sibling care is increasing as autism is diagnosed. Both parents may be working full-time, and when the child with autism gets home from school, only his or her sibling is there to provide care. Then there’s the trickle-down impact of the opioid crisis. It has contributed to grandparents stepping in to raise grandkids. But what if the grandparents become ill? The children have to step in. These things happen in veterans’ families. My daughter, as an example, has to deploy in the middle of COVID-19. One set of grandparents are coming to help. What happens if they get sick? Then my wife and I will go help, and if we get sick, well: Does my 9-year-old grandson have to step in?

[SEE: Family Caregiving During Coronavirus.]

Three Areas of Focus

Through the Caregiving Youth Project, AACY provides in-school skills building support groups for those in grades six to 12, plus regular lunch and learn sessions. The group also provides resource links for families, as well as computers, tutoring and solutions for special needs. Outside of school, AACY provides overnight camps, picnics, cooking, mentoring and educational and fun activities.

To support young caregivers, know that simple acts can make a big difference. By offering respite, for example, a mom and her son could have time to go to church or breakfast. And offering to cook a meal or help with bathing and feeding could allow a child to take a break and breathe.

“I think most of all, the children need to know that they’re not alone,” Siskowski says. Having the ability to share stories by connecting with others is helpful, and so is the opportunity to have some fun. They are kids, after all.

[READ: Compassion Fatigue: the Hidden Cost of Caregiving.]

Advocacy Needed

It’s easy for children to get lost in the system. AACY has transformed lives: The organization has a 98.3% average high school graduation rate, with more than 90% of students going on to post-secondary education. Many enter the health care field.

“These children, whose education is an adult responsibility, must become recognized as providers of health care at home,” Siskowski says. “They must be included in public health policy for family caregiving, support and solutions. That they are in this role is through no fault of their own; no child in our country should have to drop out of school to provide care for family members. With state and federal recognition and support, together we can help break the cycle of health disparities.”

More from U.S. News

14 Ways Caregivers Can Care for Themselves

When Health Treatments Go From Hospital to DIY

Facts You Should Know About Lung Cancer

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