Reversed Roles: Children as Caregivers

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A child caregiver is a child that provides significant assistance to family members who need help with daily activities due to physical or mental illness, disability, or sometimes even just age-related frailty. There is a large population of caregiving youth that until recently has gone largely unnoticed and under-appreciated. In 2005, one study done by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the United Hospital Fund found that there were approximately 1.3 to 1.4 million child caregivers in the United States.

Growing up is difficult enough for a child. I know most of my adolescence looked a lot like a melodramatic soap opera. I worried about crushes on boys, shopping at the mall, and gossiping at soccer practice. That was normal. For these caregiving children, “normal” is making sure their mother is taking her medication timely and properly, helping their father get dressed in the morning, or even ensuring their grandfather takes a bath at night. These children are truly heroic and deserve recognition.

More importantly, however, they desperately need help. Consider these findings from the above-mentioned study. Child caregivers are more likely than non-child caregivers to:

  • Show anxious or depressed behavior
  • Feel that no one loves them
  • Feel worthless or inferior
  • Have trouble getting along with teachers
  • Bully or act mean
  • Be disobedient at school
  • Associate with kids who get in trouble

Also, the study found that some child caregivers missed school or failed to complete homework because of their caregiving obligations.

A recent CNN article honored the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), started by Connie Siskowski, in their work that aims to help young boys and girls in these situations. Siskowski inspirationally said:

“These children suffer silently behind closed doors. They don’t have the help and the support and the recognition that they need.”

AACY provides special classes for child caregivers that teach coping, financial, and goal-setting skills. These are such important skills for any child to learn but they become more critical when the child lacks training from alternative sources or when the child has significantly more responsibilities. AACY also sends child caregivers on field trips and to overnight camps. This, in my opinion, is one of the most important functions of AACY – reminding children that they are kids. Even though while they are at home they have more obligations than the average child, each child still needs to have fun, make friends, and enjoy their childhood as much as possible.

AACY also helps make teachers and school administrators more aware of a child caregiver’s home-life. Often, the school is not even aware of what the child is dealing with at home, which sometimes can perpetuate the negative effects of anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation for the child.

Concerning AACY’s goals, Siskowski said:

“We can’t change the health condition of the person [receiving care], but what we can do is provide the skills and the resources and the value to the child so that they can have a little more balance in their life. And also, so that they know that they’re not alone.”

To learn more about the AACY and their admirable goals, visit their website.

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