In the United States, there are at least 1.4 million children and 5.5 million young adults who provide unpaid care to family members with disabilities, mental illnesses, injuries sustained through military service, and substance abuse issues. Here’s what you need to know about their lives during the holiday season:
The holiday school break may not be a “break” for them. Cold weather may exacerbate the physical health conditions of their loved ones, meaning both the worries and caring duties of caregiving youth multiply. As caregiving youth are home for longer periods of time with no school to attend, caring duties may increase and intensify. Young adult children may come home from college and find themselves expected to take on more care provision. When children and parents share in providing care for a sibling or grandparent, parents may be tempted to delegate more caregiving responsibilities to the children so that they may have some respite. Remember that children will want a chance to unwind after a busy school term. Give them space to read a book, watch television, and spend time with their friends.
In addition, keep in mind that the notion of a “normal” holiday season is always relative for caregiving youth—things can change instantly. This can be a time of instability, particularly for those youth caring for loved ones with mental illnesses or substances abuse issues. If the holiday season triggers a depressive episode or heavy substance use, caregiving youth serve as the family’s safety net for keeping the household running.
Money, Money, Money. It is important to understand that there is an intersectionality issue at play between poverty, disability, and caregiving. Caregivers, young and old, as well as those with disabilities, are more likely to be living under financial strain or affected by poverty. It can be financially difficult for parents to keep up with all of the holiday parties and the gift giving that lasts all through December. For many caregiving kids, a parent’s money woes can trickle down to being their money woes. The stress barometer of the family household may rise immensely when parents are worried about the additional pressure of providing gifts for the family, along with making ends meet. Kids can easily pick up on the added tension in the home. If you’re a parent, give yourself some grace this holiday season and don’t feel like you need to do it all. If you’re a teacher, sports coach, or club leader, be mindful of finding ways to celebrate that are cost-effective and inclusive.
They experience a diverse range of emotions. Sometimes frustrations can mount when they realize their holidays at home are not the same in comparison to their non-caregiving peers. The visits of extended family members during the holidays may also serve as an unexpected source of frustration. In a recent interview with a teenage caregiver, I was told of the annoyance felt during her aunts’ holiday visits. Her aunts would pester her about cleaning her room. Knowing she provided around-the-clock care for her grandparents every day of the year, she found their questioning condescending. It’s critical to be aware that in many instances, caregiving youth are not only the “experts” in their family members’ care, they also serve as managers of their households. Be sensitive to the shifts in family dynamics that may occur when out of town family members come to visit.
Like adults, caregiving youth are also susceptible to the dark days of winter. Be watchful for signs of depression, particularly for those under high stress or grieving. Finally, remember that the holiday season is also a time of love and joy for caregiving youth. Spending extra time with their families can be reassuring and comforting for them. For caregiving youth who have experienced loss, this is the perfect time to either honor old traditions or create new ones.
Caregiving youth deserve extra support during the holiday season. If you’re looking for ways to help, donate to the American Association of Caregiving Youth, the first and only national organization dedicated to supporting children with caregiving responsibilities.