What Kyllian Warman remembers most about her childhood is caring for her father, an alcoholic who eventually developed liver and colon cancer. She
helped her mother feed him, dress him, give him medicine and
clean up after him, all while also watching her younger brother.
“If I wasn’t taking care of my dad, I would support my mom,
helping her do taxes, go through bills and do housework. I just
thought, ‘This is what I have to do. Everybody’s got to make it
out of this alive,’” says Warman, who is now 20.
Warman was just one of thousands of American children
who perform such caregiving duties every day. According to the
latest data available from the National Alliance for Caregiving
(NAC) and the United Hospital Fund, in 2005 at least 1. 3
million U.S. children ages 8 to 18 helped to care for a sick or
disabled relative, with 72 percent of these caring for a parent or
grandparent and 11 percent for a sibling.
But the total number may be even higher, experts say. In
2012, there were 6. 1 million U.S. children who had a parent
with a disability, according to the National Council on
Disability, which research, including the NAC study, suggests
leads to children providing care.
“People don’t stay in the hospital as long as they used to, and
are living much longer with chronic health conditions that can
become quite severe before they die,” says Carol D. Goodheart,
EdD, a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and former APA
president. Her 2010 Presidential Initiative Task Force developed
the association’s Family Caregiver Briefcase of information and
resources ( www.apa.org/pi/about/publications/caregivers/index.
Yet as important as these young caregivers may be, the work
they do is largely invisible. Many don’t identify themselves as
caregivers, especially if their work is culturally typical, says Kim
Shifren, PhD, a professor of psychology at Towson University
in Towson, Maryland. At age 14, she cared for her mother who
had a heart attack. “I would feed her and dress her and help her
bathe. I didn’t think of myself as a burdened caregiver. I just
stepped up and did it,” she says.
Acknowledging the roles these children play and supporting
them can make the difference between an experience that builds
empathy and resilience or one that leads to mental health and
adjustment issues, experts say.
“There’s nothing wrong with having to provide caregiving
to a parent, but there’s something wrong if you’re not getting
support yourself or your needs are not getting met in the
process,” says Grant Charles, PhD, an associate professor in the
School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia,
who studies child caregiving.
More than a million children and adolescents are caring for family
members. What are the consequences for their development?
By Stacy Lu