More and more, young adults are taking on the responsibility of providing for the health and safety of their family members who can’t otherwise take care of themselves due to illnesses, injuries or disabilities. This causes unique challenges for the young caretakers, including financial and time constraints that prevent them from furthering their educations. This guide offers some solutions to support these young adults so that they succeed in two things they’re passionate about: getting an education and caring for family members.
June is a student at the local community college, living with her father who has chronic kidney disease, her younger siblings and her grandmother. With her grandmother unable to take care of June’s father and her siblings still in middle school, the caretaking responsibilities fall on June. Between classes and homework, she makes sure her siblings are keeping up with schoolwork and her father makes it to his dialysis appointments three times a week.
|5:30 a.m.||June is up early to prepare breakfast and lunches for her family members with her grandmother’s help.|
|6:00 a.m.||June wakes up her siblings and prompts them to get ready for school.|
|7:00 a.m.||June leaves for her first classes of the day after dropping her siblings off at the bus stop.|
|9:30 a.m.||June heads home to take her father to doctor’s appointments, including his dialysis appointments.|
|12 p.m.||After dropping her father back at home, June stops by the school library to study and work on homework before her next classes.|
|3:30 p.m.||June picks up her siblings from school and heads home for more homework and study time.|
|6:00 p.m.||With help from her grandmother or siblings, June prepares dinner for the family.|
|7:30 p.m.||June helps her father clean up and ensures that her siblings are winding down for the night.|
|8:30 p.m.||With her siblings tucked into bed, June settles down to finish up her homework.|
|10:30 p.m.||Her family and school responsibilities done, June heads to bed.|
Stefan is a 16-year-old high school sophomore, dedicated to finishing his schooling so he can make a better life for himself and his family. He lives with his grandmother and a younger brother who is blind. His grandmother is no longer able to work, so the responsibility falls on Stefan to earn wages to help support his family.
|6 a.m.||Stefan is up early to help his brother get dressed and fed for school.|
|6:45 a.m.||Stefan usually spends some time studying and finishing the previous night’s homework.|
|7:30 a.m.||After dropping his brother off at his charter school, Stefan heads to school.|
|3 p.m.||Stefan picks his brother up from school and drops him off at home, in the care of his grandmother. Once a month, Stefan also travels with his grandmother and brother to a doctor’s appointment where he translates for his grandmother.|
|4:00 p.m.||Arriving to his after-school job early, Stefan spends about 30 minutes working on homework before starting his shift.|
|7:00 p.m.||During his 20-minute break, Stefan studies and calls home to check on his brother and grandmother. Three times a month he stops by the pharmacy to pick up medications for his grandmother.|
|10:00 p.m.||Stefan arrives home from work, helps his brother get to bed and starts in on his homework again.|
|11:45 p.m.||Stefan is finally able to turn in for the night.|
Young adult and teen caregivers don’t have to go at it alone. There are numerous resources available for them, giving them the support they need to care for their family members while still attending and having success in school.
Young caregivers are resilient and have grit, but they also face a number of challenges they have to overcome. It’s not easy, and they lean on resources and support from social services and school in order to get by.
Taking care of others first usually means that students are running late or even sleeping through their alarms. If they’re minors, that means that their parents or guardians must excuse the absence. Depending on the family dynamics, this may not always happen.
Young caregivers may miss classes when important family responsibilities take precedence, like translating at a doctor’s appointment or providing transportation for a family member. Other students miss school because there’s no one else available to care for an ill or disabled family member during the day. If the absences are excessive, these students or their guardians face disciplinary action from the school.
If they frequently miss class or don’t have time to finish homework, grades might suffer for young caregivers. They may not have time for academic support before or after school, so they continue to struggle on their own. This leads to poor grades, academic probation and challenges maintaining scholarships. .
Young, busy caregivers have little time for themselves, let alone fostering healthy friendships. And at this age, having friendsships with like-minded peers is an important part of their growth and development. Young caregivers can often feel lonely and left out and the friends they do have may voice their concern that there’s no time for them.
Being responsible for others on a regular basis is stressful, especially when you’re young and want to do well in school. Add a job or other responsibilities to the mix, and students often struggle to get to school and work on time and to finish their homework adequately. This can lead to burnout when the student doesn’t have the support and resources he or she needs.
Self-care is a necessary part of life, and most young adults have learned how to navigate it. But when young caregivers are focused on all the items on their to-do lists, they often put self-care last. This can lead to a host of other problems, such as health issues, declining grades and burnout.
Fears of losing their family members, dread over missed classes or homework assignments, and an ongoing sense of overwhelm can contribute to young caregivers feeling anxiety. If left untreated, which it often does, this anxiety can interfere with regular daily activities and even cause physical symptoms.
Teens and young adults have many rites of passage that young caregivers may miss out on, including club activities at school, participating in sports, attending school dances and even dating. The caregiver is thrown into a position of great responsibility early in life and can feel resentment toward the person or situation that caused it.
If not acting as an official legal guardian, young caregivers often can’t make medical decisions for those in their care, even when they are the primary caregiver. This can cause many challenges for both the caregiver and his or her family member in need—as well as for the social services they’re seeking out.
All children and young adults want and need to feel safe and taken care of. But when they’re acting as the adult in their family situation, they can feel abandoned and lost, unsure of who to turn to for help.
Caring for family members with disabilities, illnesses and injuries is not cheap, and social services don’t always cover all the costs. Young caregivers often get jobs, as time allows, to help their family through difficult financial times. This added responsibility adds to the caregivers’ schedule and stress, further perpetuating the cycle of burnout.
Students who care for family members with chronic illnesses or disabilities are an exceptional group of young adults with various talents and challenges. They often don’t fit into the traditional student mold because they balance the responsibilities of school, work and caring for someone with extensive needs. Thankfully there are numerous scholarship options available to them to help reduce some of the financial burden so they can focus on caring for themselves and their loved ones while succeeding in college and beyond.
Bio: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. Click here to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at www.ruxandralemay.com for monthly blogs posts.
I highly recommend looking for resources that blend time management, organization, prioritization and compartmentalization. The first three come in handy in learning what tasks or jobs should be done first, how much time to give to each task, and categorize everything in “high importance,” “average” and “low.” Not everything is of high importance. The last skill, compartmentalization, comes in handy when worry and concern over things keep them from fully engaging in the task that they are working on. Learning how to “box up” distracting feelings and thoughts will help them move through the list and get stuff done successfully.
The American Association of Caregiving Youth is a more formal resource. But any resources of time management, stress management and self-care – and there are plenty out there – are foundational elements and are good for a lifetime and highly recommended especially in these circumstances.
First really identifying what social norms are healthy, and which ones are not, is huge nowadays. And that applies to all young people. Wasting time on Facebook is one of today’s social norm, but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy or productive. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real, anxiety producing concern but it’s definitely a waste of good brain power. However, real, social connection with good friends, going to the movies or concerts, hanging out, connecting over coffee are a must.
“Planning for social time, including it in the schedule just like anything else, and learning how to not feel guilty about it are important.”
At a young age and without emotional coaching and support, they are at risk of not recognizing the signs of taking on too much. Not knowing how to say no in an empathic way and to put boundaries around to protect themselves, their bodies and brains can become completely overwhelmed. These are high risk situations for clinical exhaustion, fatigue, dehydration or autoimmune disorders, or on the mental side: anxiety, depression and substance abuse. One of my favorite quotes for people that take the role of caregivers is:
“The risk of putting everyone else first is that you teach them you come second.”
“It’s important especially for young people to learn that although empathy and caring for other people are great qualities to have, so are self-care and self-protection and putting yourself first once in a while.”
Be great listeners! Help them build their energy levels and emotional tanks, by pointing out their strengths and qualities. But also help them build self-awareness, identify physical and mental symptoms of stress and burn out, and help them find the best healthy coping activities for them. Teach them the importance of self-care! You can’t pour from an empty cup so in order to take care of others, they have to take care and nurture themselves first.