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Asking children to be adults before their time - the forgotten children

Last week, and quietly, I sat down with a group of carers – people who, every day, look after others in their immediate whanau or in the extended family. What might surprise you is that these carers are not adults – they are children. The sad reality is we expect some children to become adults well before their time and in doing so we forget that when we have conversations about carers, we often exclude the very people that do a lot of heavy lifting every single day. Sam, not his real name, is a 14-year-old boy and has been one of the carers of his dad since he had an accident six years ago. While other children are getting ready to go to school for the day Sam is already up at 5am and helping mum make sure that dad is cleaned up and that his overnight toilet holdings have been flushed. He helps shower his dad and with mum they dress him. From there, as mum gets ready for work, Sam makes lunch for himself and his two younger siblings, rousing them from bed at 6.30am. Mum must be out the door by 7.00am because she works full time and just before she does so the day carer arrives. Sam’s next job is to get the two siblings to school which, thankfully, is just around the corner from his new High school.

Sam tells me when he gets to school he’s already tired but that its also hard to make friends because there is no playtime after school or hanging out with mates – because he has to be there when his two young siblings are finishing school for the day. He is never late. He tells me he cant always talk to the teacher about why his homework at the beginning of the school year is always running late because as nice as she is the teacher has 28 other students in the classroom. When Sam gets home the two younger siblings are plonked in front of the TV and he helps the day carer with Dad. He tells me he often sits and talks with his Dad for a while – sad that he cant be out there with him playing sport or kicking the ball around. Around 4.30pm Sam starts getting dinner ready – hes quite the masterchef his mum tells me, and then at around 6.00pm mum gets home from work. But she is also already tired but together they kick in as a team – mum and son. As 8pm rolls around Sam and Mum prepare Dad for sleep and by 10pm, with all of the jobs done and the two younger siblings in bed, Stoo goes to sleep. His homework has again gone undone.

Across the nation this story is often repeated where children are not just the carer but have turned into a primary carer. They don’t get paid, they are never recongnised and we forget that they are there, in amongst the adults, because they have a loved one who needs them. But they too suffer in silence. No one knows their stories because few people bother to ask. And yet day after day we expect them to be adults ahead of their time. Sam and Mums story is no different to the more than twenty I have been researching the last few months as I try and get a handle on the stresses and pressures on our children that fall silently between the cracks and develop new ways of how we can support them and their whanau.

The stories are never the same because each whanau is different – there are those with parents who have suffered a life changing disability and there are those, which to me are often the saddest, where some are faced with parents with addictions. In the come months I’ll be publishing my research into this forgotten group of people along with recommendations on what we might do to strengthen our support services for carers – including support for our young carers.

In addition to this I’ll be doing a piece of work on how this plays into mental health and suicide prevention with the added stresses that so obviously come with this sort of role.

In the meantime – for our teachers and health workers out there you’ll know what I am talking about. That feeling in your stomach that tells you something is not quite right. Instead of rushing judgement rush to help and to support. So keep an eye out for my research and take a moment and just give thanks to the brave and incredible young people out there who go about their tasks every single day.

Author: Matthew Tukaki

NOTES: real names have not been used and names in the research will be anonymous. Permission was granted by "Sam and his Mum" for this article.


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