One of the first commitments I made to myself after my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis is that I wouldn’t allow it to impact my children in negative ways. That was eight years ago. They were five and eight years old at the time. Fortunately, my wife and I have been able to keep that commitment. My girls aren’t responsible for taking care of their Mom.
That’s not to say they have been untouched. I’ve written before about the positive aspects we’ve discovered through the years. I believe I’ve been much more present for my daughters with transportation and shopping. And I think they are both more compassionate than they otherwise would have had the opportunity to become. Unfortunately, what we’ve been able to do isn’t the case in every family.
It’s difficult for children who find themselves in the role of caregiver. One of the more important studies about the impact of being placed in a caregiving is “Young Caregivers in the U.S.”
“Young Caregivers in the U.S.” presents the results of two studies into the prevalence of children who are caregivers and the impact their roles as caregivers have on them. The studies were conducted by Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc. for the National Alliance for Caregivers and the United Hospital Fund.
The studies had three main objectives: to determine the prevalence of caregiving among children in the U.S., to learn what role children have in giving care, and to learn how the caregiving role impacts the life of a child.
It isn’t a surprise that the more intensive a child caregiver’s role is in caring for a parent, the greater the impact is upon their experience of childhood. Perhaps much of what the report describes is best described as a role reversal in which a child is placed into a parental role to care for a parent or grandparent. Family theorists call a child in this situation a “parentified child”.
“Young Caregivers in the U.S.” paints a grim picture. “About six in ten child caregivers help their care receiver with at least one activity of daily living (ADL) (58%). ADLs include bathing, dressing, getting in and out of beds and chairs, using the bathroom or diapers, and feeding. Specifically, 30% of child caregivers help with one ADL, 16% help with two, and 12% help with three or more.”
Some of report’s conclusions: some of the results are mixed. Children engaged in caregiving are not usually doing it alone and are participating in the same educational and social activities as their noncaregiving peers. There are indications, however, that some children are experiencing distress that is manifested in behavioral and school problems and feelings of isolation and sadness. Boys in particular seem to have more difficulties than girls. Children in minority households with lower incomes are under particular stress and report receiving less help in carrying out their tasks.
Suggested solutions are more general in nature and include ideas about creating services to assist child caregivers. The report ends with an extensive bibliography of related resources.
Caregiver Tip: It isn’t possible in every situation because family life is different for each of us and because life is harder for some than for others. However, to the best of your ability, avoid placing children in caregiving roles.