In this blog post Anni Piiroinen, a University of Warwick student research assistant working with Prof. Shirin Rai, reflects on a recent project looking at support for young carers.
Feminist scholars of international political economy have drawn attention to the economic importance of social reproduction and the labour it requires, which is largely done by women . Care work in particular has been a recent focus of attention of feminist political economists (see the report of the Commission on Care). In a new research project led by Shirin Rai from the University of Warwick and Jean Grugel from the University of York, we wanted to expand the focus of this research to children as they also participate in the work of social reproduction. Like the care work of adults, their work is also not recognized in economic terms. Further, this neglect leads to overlooking the costs of care work by children.
In an effort to study the experiences of children and young people doing care work, we conducted a research project in an organisation offering support for young carers in the Midlands. After attending several activity sessions at the organisation, I conducted one-on-one interviews with children who used the service as well as staff members. We also asked for parents’ views on their children’s care work through a survey. The project shed new light on the forms of children’s care work, its impacts on their wellbeing and the support they require.
What kind of care?
The organisation where the research was carried out targeted child carers in families where at least one person required care due to an illness, a disability, drug or alcohol addiction, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ADHD. Common forms of care work done by children consisted of standard household chores, such as cleaning, cooking and washing up dishes. The staff stressed to me that caring often takes place through mundane activities, such as making someone breakfast. Then there were more personal forms of care, such as help with dressing up and with medical issues, e.g. finger pricking, though these were mentioned quite rarely. Children also helped with providing emotional support to the family member requiring care, including keeping them company, calming them down or distracting them.
The staff particularly stressed the importance of non-practical aspects of caring, as children would spend a lot of time worrying about family members. Worrying can be invisible from the outside and thus easily ignored by support services. Unlike the organisation involved in the research project, many other support services only cater to children with a practical caring role, neglecting children who do not provide practical care but who might be deeply affected by constant worry. The staff found the conventional portrayal of caring as a set of practical chores quite problematic, criticising the stereotypic portrayal of a young carer as a child pushing their mother in a wheelchair. It was pointed out that constantly worrying about a family member can actually be more exhausting than practical care. Children worry particularly when they are at school and unable to know what is going on at home. Worrying can also prevent children from going out with friends or moving away to university, not necessarily because they are forbidden to do so but out of concern for their family member.
When asked about the time spent on care work by the child, the most common answer by parents was 1-2 hours per day. At the same time, all parents said that the pattern of care was continuous rather than emphasising morning or evening times. Especially if we take into account the personal worry that young carers experience, it becomes difficult to distinguish time apart from caring. The worrying children do for their family member spreads the caring activity far beyond any physical act of caring, making it a constant activity. One staff member emphasised the persistent presence of caring: ‘I would say [the] majority of carers care all the time. I think that’s what it comes down to. Whether you’re doing anything physically, whether you’re doing cooking, cleaning, anything like that, or whether it’s just emotional support, it’s always there. The caring role never really goes away.’
Costs of care work to children
Rai, Hoskyns & Thomas have argued that socially reproductive work needs human resources, which are used up as this work is carried out. In cases where the outflow of resources exceeds the inflow, carers can be face what these authors term ‘depletion’, which on the individual level can be manifested as problems in physical and mental wellbeing. One main goal of our research project on children was to better understand the costs of care work to children and the possibilities of this depletion. Costs included feelings of worry about a family member, which could impact concentration at school, and missing out on other activities due to caring responsibilities, such as hanging out with friends or hobbies. About half of the parents in the survey worried that their child’s caring responsibilities were affecting their school work and their friendships. The majority of parents also thought that their child was more grown-up than their peers due to their caring responsibilities.
It became clear during the research process that there is a vast range of different caring experiences, which inhibits the making of sweeping generalisations about the wellbeing of carers. The staff emphasised that there were a lot of children and families that were coping well with their caring responsibilities, even if these took up a lot of their time. On the other hand, there were some carers who were really struggling as their caring responsibilities started to become overwhelming.
Depletion occurs on a household level as well as on an individual level. This has been acknowledged by the support organisation, as they have a dedicated staff member providing support for families where children have caring responsibilities. They try to help families manage their caring responsibilities and to enable the children to keep doing their care work while allowing them to have their own life as well. Within the family, the care work provided by the parent for one family member sometimes infringed on their ability to provide care for others, as caring duties limited the time and energy parents could give to their children. One parent said that care needs of a family member ‘affects us as a family as I am constantly tired due to being up all night testing blood sugars.’ The care provided to children could also be affected by the illness of the parent. One mother expressed that she was ‘always in pain and tired … irritable and drained or asleep so children try to just leave me alone.’
Support for carers
The organisation where the research was conducted provides a range of services to support young carers. These include visits to schools, one-to-one and family advice sessions, and activity sessions, where children play on their own and often receive a warm meal. Sometimes there were special sessions arranged around a specific activity, such as clay crafting. I was initially struck by how normal the activity sessions were, as they did not really differ from standard after school clubs. As a staff member explained, ‘most of the time when [children] walk through the door to do the activities, anything that they’ve got to do with a caring role or responsibility they just leave at the door.’ Caring was never explicitly mentioned by the children or by the staff, except in conversations between myself than the staff. The activities organised by the staff were not strictly tailored for people doing care work either. Children would come in, usually dropped off by their parents, and most often start playing pool, or go on the Xbox or Playstation. Some children would often stay chatting with the activity coordinator and volunteers about everyday topics unrelated to caring.
Many children said that the activity sessions provided by the organisation allowed them to have a break from their everyday life and caring responsibilities. One of them described, ‘I find it’s like a break. I don’t have to worry ‘cause I always have something to do, instead of just sitting at home … But here I’m thinking about other things, like playing with friends, making new friends, helping people, like, play games …’ By providing a break to both the children and their families, the organisation was helping them replenish the resources they required to keep providing care.
Challenges in supporting young carers
The importance of schools was highlighted in the research, especially by a staff member working with schools to identify young carers. The staff member explained that schools were often reluctant to start proactively identifying and supporting young carers, as this was seen as an extra work load. Out of 19 parents that participated in the survey, eight said that the caring duties of the child were not recognised by the school. When asked what kind of support they would like to have from the school, parents called for general support and recognition of the fact that the child might be tired. A lot could be done simply through a more flexible approach that recognises that young carers sometimes cannot strictly follow the schedule and rules of a school day. Schools could particularly help to reduce the amount of worrying that young carers do during the school day by allowing them to phone home between lessons. Schools could also be more patient with tardiness in the morning, considering that pupils might be a little late for having to drop off their siblings at school. The staff explained that schools tended to interpret tardiness as a problem that had to be remedied though detention or other disciplinary methods, rather than asking why the young person was late. Making adjustments to schools’ requirements was often considered out of the question, leaving it up to the young person to adjust their life according to school rules, which was very challenging with caring responsibilities.
Stigma of care work
The stigma of care work combined with a general fear of social care involvement can prevent families from seeking help as they fear that it portrays them as bad parents and creates the risk of their children being taken into custody. As one staff member explained, ‘People just panic. And the fact that their child is doing things at home that other children aren’t, they’re worried that people are gonna think that they’re not good parents, that they can’t cope as a family, and that’s not always the case.’
The stigma of care work is connected to a larger misunderstanding of care work according to staff, who emphasised that care work done by children is quite common and usually takes much less dramatic forms than assumed. It was specifically stressed by a staff member that care work is not comparable to other kinds of labour: ‘it’s not like their jobs, it’s not like they’re sending kids down the mines or sweeping the chimneys.’ Rather than seeking to eradicate care work done by children, the approach of the organisation was to support children and families in doing their care work. The stigma of children’s care work is a particularly important point to bear in mind for those who are looking for ways to better support child carers. Judging their care work as unacceptable and comparing it to stereotypical ‘child labour’ will likely alienate families, child carers and organisations supporting them.
Support for carers required to counteract depletion
The research found that child carers and their families need support to carry out vital forms of social reproduction. Organisations supporting this group also need funding on a stable basis. This was particularly clear with the organisation where the research was conducted, as their small team was starting to struggle with the amount of families requiring support. Attention to social care needs to recognize that children are part of the care force and need joined-up thinking to address these needs – between local authorities, non-state organisations, schools and families. Without such attention, the costs of care for children will rise, as will the rates of depletion of individual children and their households.