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Caregiving Youth
By Hannah Lee, Staff Writer

The face of caregivers in the United States today represents every race, ethnicity and religious sect. They can be found in virtually every zip code. And yet, there is still a population of caregivers that often remains invisible. It is estimated that 1.4 million children in the United States participate in the care of a family member or loved one who is either critically or chronically ill. Either living in the same home or nearby the ailing person, these children partake in a wide variety of activities of daily living including everything from bathing to shopping. However, they are often not included in the training or the support structures designed to help caregivers.

But as a parent who is also a caregiver, there are ways to help your child ease into but also successfully maintain a caregiving role.

Often parents want to protect children from the harsh realities of life. But by not giving them the proper information they need about the situation, you can end up doing more harm than good. “Children worry anyhow, even if they are being told everything is okay,” explains Laurie Conners, Project Manager of the American Association of Caregiving Youth. Expressing your concerns and fears with your children gives them permission to do the same, preventing them from dealing with it silently. Also by explaining the practicalities of the disease and the treatment, everything from common side effects from certain medications to potential outcomes, prepares the child for what to expect so that nothing is a surprise.

Many times when medical professionals educate and train new caregivers on the different modalities associated with the disease, children aren’t involved in learning these necessary techniques. As a parent, find a way to give your children the skills they need to do these jobs as easily as they can. Use the opportunity to teach your children about the disease and caregiving skills as another way to spend time as a family.

A way for you to insure your child talks about what they are going through with the added stress and responsibility of caregiving is to appoint an advocate in the family. This is a person outside of the direct living environment that your child can visit or call on the phone to voice feeling and problems they might encounter. This way, even if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, there is an adult accessible to discuss concerns.

Creating time to be a family outside of caregiving tasks is a great stress reliever for the whole family.   Try to remember all the things you used to do as a family.  It could be something simple as an hour at your neighborhood park or a night out for pizza just as long as it is time away from the responsibilities of caregiving.  If it is not possible for you to get away, plan a game night at home to laugh and enjoy each other’s company. 

Children in a caregiving role often must neglect outside friends and activities because of the responsibilities at home.  Perhaps they need to come home right after school because the parent is still at work and someone needs to take care of the ailing person.  Or they may be embarrassed to invite friends over in fear of what they might think.  In turn, they become isolated from the rest of the world. However, it is important for kids to maintain relationships with people their own age.  Even if it is just one afternoon a week, try to find a way for your child to play with friends or join an activity group. 

Just as adult caregivers often must juggle the responsibilities of work and caring for a sick family member, children also play a dual role as student and caregiver.  And often children suffer at school because they didn’t get a chance to finish their homework the night before because they were helping the ailing person, they had to get up very early to bathe and dress that person or they are simply worried about what is happening at home.  As a parent, it is so important to make certain your child is adequately prepared for school each day.  And talk to your child’s school to let them know the situation at home. If they understand the added constraints, teachers and school administrators can be a valuable asset in your child’s wellbeing.

Valuable traits such as independence and confidence often go hand in hand with the responsibility of caring for another person.  And children learn valuable life skills that other children may not learn until much later in life.  However, what is important is that your child is getting all the support and encouragement they need to be not only a successful caregiver and student, but also have time to be a kid. 

Please visit www.aacy.org to learn more about the American Association for Caregiving Youth and what you can do to help your child.


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