Families, friendships and education: Sheffield Young Carers
We tend to assume that adults care for children, nurturing them as they grow and learn. But for young carers, that support is something they give to their parents, siblings or other family members who may be struggling with ill health. It might mean doing the housework and shopping, helping someone wash and dress, collecting prescriptions and giving medicine, or offering emotional care and comfort. Caring responsibilities can leave little space for play, education, and for the chance to be children.
Each year, Sheffield Young Carers supports around 200 young carers, aged 8-25. The team looks at each young person’s situation, finding practical ways to reduce the impact of caring and emotional issues such as anxiety or loneliness. Weekly support groups are a chance to meet other young carers, with a mix of peer support and fun. In the school holidays, day trips and regular get-togethers offer a break from the responsibilities of caring.
Evaluation found that it’s had a positive impact on the young carers’ relationships, mental wellbeing (including reducing thoughts of suicide or self-harm), and performance at school, college or work. In many cases, evidence suggests that Sheffield Young Carers was the primary driver of change, and that it fills gaps that it’s hard for public services to reach.
Project in numbers
With my child, the change is that he is happy.Parent of a child supported by Sheffield Young Carers
Recognising the hidden young carers
The 2011 Census identified almost 166,000 young carers in England and Wales. Other estimates are higher, suggesting that as many as one in twelve children may take on medium to high level care for an ill or disabled family member.
The impact can be heavy. Young carers may feel responsible 24 hours a day, with stress and lost sleep from caring overnight. One 15-year-old described waking in panic at sounds in the night, “thinking your sister is having a seizure and needs to go to hospital. I don’t like this, it’s hard.”
And it leaves less room for other aspects of life. A 13-year-old said, “You want to do so many things to help but [you] only [have] two hands and it takes a lot of brain space.” Research suggests that one in four young carers felt lonely in the past week. Two in five report feeling sad.
Yet it isn’t always obvious that someone is a young carer – even to the family or the young person themselves, who may see it as part of everyday life. That means they may not have the help they need, both as carers and for themselves as young people.
Putting young carers on the radar
This is where Sheffield Young Carers steps in, promoting young carers’ needs and rights across the city. In a 2017 survey, 40% of teachers weren’t confident that they would recognise a young carer in their class. So the charity works closely with schools, helping education staff identify and support carers. Instead of working across the city, each support worker now has their own local patch, so they can build closer relationships with each area’s schools.
The team may invite teachers and school support staff to join sessions with a young carer, to discuss what help they need. At school, a small change can make a big difference, explains one-to-one worker Luke Johnson. “Having two minutes out of class when they need it, or letting them phone the cared-for person during the day – just to check if they’re okay, to reduce anxiety.”
Sometimes it’s the young person’s own anxieties that stop them going to school, so working on their mental health can also improve attendance and performance.
And it’s not only schools: the charity works to put young carers on the radar of other statutory services. More and more Sheffield GPs are now identifying young carers, marking them on their systems to make it easier to refer them for support where it’s needed. And through work with Sheffield’s Long Covid Echo Group, staff are helping to get young carers noted on hospital systems too.
Naming what's difficult
Working with young carers, the charity starts with one-to-one sessions. These are often held at school, or other locations outside the home. They give the young carer space and time to talk in confidence, and to identify what support they need.
Talking about caring can be hard. Often, “they just aren’t ready to discuss that straight away,” says Luke, “especially the younger ones. Just to understand what it means, that they do these things that other young people don’t do.” They may never have talked about it before, or recognised how it affects them.
So it’s important not to rush them. “Going in with targets, certain kinds of questions, can be difficult,” Luke says. Instead, the conversations are very open, letting young people talk about “anything that they want to talk about”.
That could be starting small: chatting about hobbies, building confidence until they’re ready to look at how they might need help. “Obviously, there’s pressure on services, to offer time-limited interventions,” Luke says. “But I think it’s integral to do that trust building first.”
He uses prompts to help young people open up – such as going round the clock, hour by hour, to see what they do in their day. That concrete detail “helps them to think about their role as a young carer, and the impact that those responsibilities have,” he explains. They use a “very colourful, very bubbly” wellbeing questionnaire to spark conversation, identifying worries and problems. “We’ll look at how it affects their friendships, their education, their social life, making sure they’ve got time for themselves.”
And they set goals for what the young person wants to achieve with the service. “Things like, ‘I want to meet new people’,” Luke says, “or ‘I want to work on my confidence’, ‘I want to know more about the person I care for and their health conditions’.”
"I'm not alone"
By building confidence, these individual sessions prepare young carers to take part in the charity’s weekly support groups. Running for a full school term, these are small groups – usually six to eight young carers, grouped by age. The sessions are a mix of peer support and a break from caring responsibilities.
It’s chance to make new friends, “but also to do some focused emotional work,” Luke says, learning techniques to manage their own wellbeing. Groups cover practical issues, such as fire hazards, emergencies, and safe manual handling – important if you’re caring for someone with limited mobility. This is useful, but it’s also a way to share ideas and experiences, to make connections.
“The peer support is really, really powerful,” Luke says. “That’s where young people can find themselves.” Spending time with other young carers can change how they see their situation. Fauzia, a mother supported by the charity, explains that her son found that “everybody there was the same, so it’s not only him who has these problems: ‘It’s not me.’”
Her son helps care for his brother, who has special educational needs. He had been bullied about it at school, and felt lonely. “With my child, the change is that he is happy, having a special needs brother. He has friends,” Fauzia says. When he met another family in a similar situation, he was eager to help. “He was trying to be involved,” his mother explains, “to chill out that [other family’s] child, who was upset because his brother had an issue.”
And giving young carers opportunities to have fun is important too. The charity offers activities in every school holiday, from picnics to canoeing or llama walking, as well as support for families to go on holiday. It’s respite, a chance for young carers to get away from home, to enjoy the fun and connection they may have missed out on. It gives them the space to just be children.
Support beyond the young carer
As well as working directly with the young carer, the charity looks at their whole situation. Where families are struggling to make ends meet, it can help to provide IT equipment, school uniform and other necessities. It offers free transport to groups where travel costs could be a barrier.
The charity’s family project offers more in-depth support. It looks at all aspects of a family’s life, including health, housing, finances and relationships, before working with the family to develop a response. “We’re always looking for what’s missing for this family,” explains Helen Bolt, who coordinates this strand of work. “What’s creating a situation where the young carer is being impacted by the caring?”
Addressing that could mean sorting out benefits, applying for grants to pay for fridges or stairlifts, or looking at home visits from an occupational therapist. “It’s understanding that if we help the cared-for people, and reduce the impact of their needs and health issues, that will have a direct impact on the young person,” Luke says.
The charity works with statutory services across the city: filling gaps and joining up support. Sarah, a cared-for parent, had help to liaise with her children’s school and with multi-agency support teams. The charity helped to explain the complex procedures that would get the right support for her children. With their help, Sarah could come to meetings in person or by video link. She could also catch up with her support worker when her health made it impossible for her to attend. This support “was so incredibly valuable to me,” Sarah says. “I didn’t feel ignored or belittled with Sheffield Young Carers alongside.”
I wouldn’t be at university if hadn’t developed the communication skills I developed at Sheffield Young Carers.Former participant
Support lasts for a year, and changes over time - from intensive work at the beginning to help with ongoing support networks and next steps. From taking part in activities, participants have moved on to delivering them: Sarah recently led a skills sharing session on making herbal teas for wellbeing. “Skill sharing gives us all a chance to learn from each other and is a boost to our mental health,” she explains.
The connections the young carers and their families have built have lasted beyond the charity’s formal support. “We’ve had parents who then enrolled to do a course together,” Helen says – taking peer support onwards as they seek new opportunities. “The fact that they’re not walking in alone is really important.”
For Fauzia, it’s “just like working in a team [with other parents and support workers]. I feel like it’s really family – like I’m surrounded by my own family.”
It’s a process that builds confidence. “As a parent, I think you just sometimes need to feel you’re doing the best you can,” Sarah says. “With the support Sheffield Young Carers offer, in a myriad of ways, I actually finally feel like I can and I am.”
Katie Borland, Helen Bolt, and Luke Johnson spoke to Zoë Anderson on 7, 10, and 17 February 2022.
If you would like to learn more about how our funding supports young people, please read our report A Chance to Thrive, which explores how the voluntary and community sector has helped to support and protect young people. Our report on the HeadStart programme shares learning on building young people's resilience, supporting mental health and wellbeing.
For more information on the impact and difference our funding makes, please read our other impact features. The feature on Voice of Young People in Care explores a project supporting the voice and rights of care-experienced young people in Northern Ireland. The feature on WeMindTheGap shares the impact of a project supporting young people into employment.