Young carers: dealing with feelings

As a young carer you probably have lots of different feelings about caring. There may be times when you really enjoy helping your family, but there may be others when you can’t stand it and just want to have a family like everybody else’s.

These feelings are completely normal, and it’s also normal to switch between feeling angry, sad, worried, frustrated and happy.

It's hard to see someone you love suffering or needing help. It’s not surprising that many young carers find it difficult to cope from time to time. This section is about some of the feelings you might experience, including tiredness, worry, stress, anger, sadness and loss, and self-harming, and how to cope with them.

Click on the bars below for more information, or watch the video below, in which JLS singer, Oritsé Williams, answers questions from young carers of parents with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Tiredness

It's normal to feel tired when you're caring for someone. This may be because you’re doing lots of things to help out, like shopping, housework or helping someone move around. Some young carers get very tired because they spend lots of time worrying about someone and don’t sleep well at night.

Tiredness can affect many areas of your life. It may stop you concentrating at school or spending time with your friends, so it’s important to try and find a solution.

If you’re having to do lots of practical jobs around the house, it's a good idea for your family to make sure they’re getting as much help as they can. Talking to a doctor or social worker can be the first step in arranging this.

If you're tired because you can’t sleep well or you're constantly worrying about the person you care for, you may want to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Worrying about someone can make you very tired and talking to someone about it, rather than worrying all by yourself, could help you relax and focus more on your own needs.

Worry

We all worry occasionally about people we love. For young carers, that worry is often there all the time, particularly when someone close is very ill. It can be very hard to switch off the worry. You might wake up in the morning worrying, worry all day at school and go to bed still worrying. This isn’t unusual, but it can make getting on with life very difficult.

While it’s OK to worry about the person you care for, you need to look after yourself as well. Worrying about them isn’t going to make them any better and it’s certainly not going to help you look after them. In fact, worrying could make you ill. Sweating, stomach aches, not being able to sleep and a feeling of panic can all be signs that your worrying is out of control.

A few things that might help include:

  • Exercise. It might sound strange, but exercising releases important chemicals (called endorphins) in our brains which cheer us up. Getting out and exercising can also give you a break from home. It could be something simple like walking the dog or cycling to the park and back, or it could be a game of football.
  • Talk about it. If you’re worried about the health of the person you care for, talk to them about it. They may be relieved to be able to answer your questions. Alternatively, talk to someone you trust, such as a good friend or teacher, about how you’re feeling. Once you’ve said things out loud they often feel less scary and the other person may have some useful advice for you.
  • Phone home. If you worry when you're away from the person you care for, allow yourself one call home while you’re out to reassure yourself things are OK. Then get back on with whatever you were doing.
  • Relax. Some basic breathing techniques or meditation can really help to calm you down when you’re feeling very worried.
  • Eat healthily. It's easy to eat a pizza or some chocolate when you’re feeling worried, but your body needs good food to put you in a good mood. That means lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.

It’s OK to have some time off from your caring responsibilities. Don't feel guilty about it: you deserve a break sometimes.

Stress

Stress is caused by many things, but it’s often your brain's way of telling you that you need a break. Growing up can be stressful enough without the added pressure of being a young carer.

Sometimes we get very stressed when there are lots of worrying things all going on at once. A parent being ill, exams at school or falling out with friends can all add to stress.

Being stressed can really affect our emotions and make us behave in ways that are out of character or more extreme than usual. For example, we might shout at someone when we’re upset instead of walking away calmly, or cry when we would normally ignore something upsetting.

Stress can also affect us physically. Some people get stomach aches or headaches due to stress. They can also lose their appetite or find they eat more than usual.

Some ways to reduce stress:

  • Try to work out what's causing the stress, and deal with it. If it’s worrying about coursework, talk to your teacher about it. If it’s worrying about your brother or sister's health, perhaps an operation they're having, chat to your parents about it and ask them for more information.
  • Don’t struggle in silence. Ask for help and talk to people about what's worrying you. Locking it away inside isn't going to sort anything out.
  • Do something physical. Often stress is a build-up of different worries and doing something that uses our bodies and tires us out physically is a healthy way of releasing tension.
  • Do something calming. Have a warm bubble bath, curl up with a good book, stroke your pet: anything as long as it’s quiet and relaxing.  

Anger

Feeling angry is OK. Everyone gets angry at times. But when we feel angry about one part of our lives, it can often spill over into other parts. We can end up taking it out on the wrong people or in the wrong way, such as hitting, shouting or breaking things.

Anger thrives on being kept secret. As soon as you get it out into the open and talk about it, it will become less powerful and easier to deal with.

Sometimes you might feel angry with the person you care for. This is normal. You might be angry that they can’t do the same things with you they used to, or because you have to do things for them that other young people don’t have to do for their parents or brothers and sisters. You might feel angry with people around you who don’t understand your home situation or who say hurtful things to you.

Some ways to deal with anger:

  • Talk to someone. Tell your family how you’re feeling and, if you can, what’s making you angry. Try to work out some solutions together.
  • If you’re angry at your family, talk to someone you trust. They might be able to help you talk to your family or work out how to improve the situation.
  • Write down your feelings in a diary.  
  • Write a letter to the person you’re angry at, but don't send it! Rip it up into lots of tiny pieces and throw it away.
  • Listen to some music and sing along at the top of your voice.
  • Find somewhere private (it could be under your duvet) and scream, loudly!
  • Play a computer game.
  • Do some sport or exercise.
  • Meet up with your friends.

Practice being assertive. This means telling people what the problem is in a calm way so you get your point across without losing your temper. Some examples might be:

  • Say, 'No, I can’t do that right now but I'll do it later when my homework is finished.'
  • Use words, not actions, to tell people how you feel. Explain that you’re feeling angry instead of storming out and slamming a door behind you.
  • If someone is saying hurtful things about your family, tell them calmly that you find what they're saying upsetting and that, if they’re interested, you’d like to explain to them what things are like for you at home.

Self-harming

Sometimes people find they can’t manage their emotions. Everything gets on top of them, and this might lead them to self-harm as a way of coping.

Self-harm is when someone deliberately hurts themselves by a variety of different methods. It’s often done in secret and they might be very scared of other people finding out.

Some people do it from time to time when things get on top of them and then stop. Others rely on it as a regular way of managing their feelings. Eating problems like anorexia or bulimia are forms of self-harming too.

Some people do it to distract themselves from their feelings or because they feel they deserve to be hurt. Others see it as a way of feeling in control when life feels out of control, or as a way of showing other people that they're hurting inside.

Whatever the reason for self-harm, it's a dangerous way of dealing with difficult feelings. There are other, safer, less harmful ways. Here are some better ways:

  • Talk to someone about it. To start with, it might be easier to talk to someone confidentially such as through a helpline such as Childline (0800 1111). They can help you build up to talking to someone closer to home, like a good friend, parent, school nurse or teacher.
  • Get advice from a doctor or nurse. If you can’t stop yet, they can give you advice on making sure you don’t hurt yourself too badly and stopping infections. When you're ready they can help you find a counsellor who will explore other ways with you of coping with feelings.
  • Think about ways to make your life less stressful. You might need to talk to your parents about doing less caring or having more time to yourself.
  • Think about whether there’s a particular situation or time that makes you want to self-harm. If you can see a pattern you can work out other ways of dealing with that situation.
  • Do something creative which allows you to express your emotions. Writing a poem, keeping a diary, writing letters to someone you feel angry with (but don’t send them) or drawing pictures are all good ways of releasing feelings.
  • Write a list of the positive things or people in your life and focus on what they mean to you.

Sadness and loss

Many young people worry about the person they care for, about whether they’ll get worse or even die. It’s hard not to worry about these things, but it’s important not to let those worries get out of control.

Finding out someone in your family has an illness which might cause them to die is very scary and upsetting. You might feel:

  • Very upset. You may feel like crying all the time.
  • Angry. This could be at the person who’s going to die, or anyone else.
  • Numb.
  • Guilty that you’re somehow responsible for the person’s illness. This is a very common feeling but is never true. Sometimes you might have argued with them or said unkind things to them, and this might make you feel very guilty when they get ill. But you haven't made them ill.
  • That it’s not really happening. Some people say it takes a while before things 'sink in'. This is a way your brain copes with very upsetting news. Try talking to people around you and gradually, though it’s very painful, you'll be able to deal with the news.
  • Scared. You may be scared about what their death will be like or what life will be like for you afterwards.
  • Physically ill. Worry and fear can often have a physical effect on us.

What can help?

  • Get some information. Ask the person who's ill or a parent about the illness. Find out about it and how it’s treated, what side effects there might be and what might happen in the future. Sometimes adults think it’s good to protect their children from an illness, but usually the more information you have about it the less you'll worry. You could also ask the nurse or doctor who looks after them some questions. You may find that the illness is not as serious as you thought.
  • Spend time with the ill person. There may be things you can't do with them if they’re very poorly, but you might consider indoor picnics, film and popcorn nights, looking through old photos and film clips of you both, making a scrapbook together or making a memory box and filling it with things that are special to you such as photos, jewellery of theirs or a handkerchief smelling of their aftershave or perfume.
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