Grandparents Plus supports all kinship carers – whether they are grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles or friends. Nearly half of kinship carers in England are not grandparents, so how do we ensure that younger kinship carers voices are heard and they are better supported? We decided to get a group together to ask them.

We invited three younger kinship carers to a discussion during Kinship Care Week to find out about their unique experiences of being kinship carers and asked them what charities like ours and other services could do to support them better. The conversation was honest and at times heart-breaking, but most of all infused with the positive energy of people desperate to make a difference.

The death of a mum, the mental health issues of an ex partner, the personality disorder of a partners sister, meant that these three young women stepped in to raise other people’s children in their twenties.

What would you do if at the age of 25 you had to make the choice to raise your younger brother or nephew to stop him going into care? “You just have to do it” they all said.  

Younger carers share most of the challenges common to all kinship carers – lack of understanding about their role, feeling invisible, having to fight for support – but they have some very different challenges unique to their stage in life too.

The change in family dynamics can cause conflict in the family. Georgina went from being a sister to a mother overnight when her mum died. As the carer to her 13-year-old brother and also the oldest of two other siblings, she faced challenges when the power-dynamic in the household changed. “I now have to be the one making the decisions, telling them what to do” she said, “and it doesn’t always go down well”.  

Friendships and relationships can suffer too. At a time when most people are still getting to know each other and having fun, they are dealing with some major family challenges. Olivia said how she saw the older kinship carers in a Grandparents Plus support group she attends to be friends and values their life experience, but said that people her own age “just don’t get it”, something echoed by the others. Luckily our groups relationships with their partners are strong but others speak of husbands or partners leaving “because they just can’t take it anymore”.

Kelly is raising her nephew and Olivia her ex partners daughter, but they both had babies of their own when they became kinship carers. Kelly had just given birth and talked about not being able to dedicate herself to her new-born when she took in her nephew who needed a lot of care and attention “I still carry that guilt” she said, “those first few months with my new baby should have been precious but instead I was dealing with court cases, contact with the child’s mother and a traumatised child”.

Other younger carers who stories were told in the session spoke about the impact on their own older children. “He’s caught up in this and nobody thinks about him” Timandra said of her 14-year-old when she took on her brother’s three children.

The two carers who had contact responsibilities with their child’s mothers described this experience as immensely stressful, not only to them but the child. Each meeting is traumatic for the child and results in “a couple of weeks of bad behaviour to unpick afterwards”. “It just sets you back again” they said. Kelly worried about ‘nature over nurture’ as she saw her child mimicking some of the birth parent’s negative behaviours when they get back home. “He (the child) doesn’t want it, I don’t want it, the only person who wants it is the person who traumatised them in the first place”. 

Imagine too, if the contact is with your own mother or father. How stressful to be managing, at a young age contact with you own parents who have had the child you are caring for taken away from them?

Kelly also spoke about the added complication when her child’s birth mother had another child. “It was difficult having to explain why his mum’s new child was living with her, yet he couldn’t - you don’t get training in how to have these difficult conversations.”

Lack of early support is a common problem for kinship carers but given their age and less parenting experience, it can be even more damaging. Kelly said that despite her child’s school being great, there was little other support to help her tackle her child’s behaviour caused by his early trauma “I just bought a book” she said “and started from there”.   

She spoke about reaching breaking point because of the lack of support. She called social services and said “I just can’t do this anymore”. It’s a point that carers shouldn’t have to get to but it’s a common story for many and the reason why we campaign for proper support for kinship carers, properly funded by government - from day one.

Housing is a common problem for younger carers. Few people own or are established in a rented house in their twenties. Georgina had a struggle to take on the tenancy of her mums flat when she died, she managed, but it’s not fit for purpose – it has three rooms but none of her siblings want to sleep in her mother’s room because it brings back painful memories, so the four of them share two bedrooms in a damp, flat that needs lots of repairs. They all need space to study which is just not available. “We want to move but don’t get priority”.

Careers can be knocked off track too, two of our young carers had to give up work when they took on their child and have found it difficult to return because of all the logistical commitments - contact visits, court dates, having to pick the child up from school because they have smashed a window of left the classroom or been aggressive to a teacher – common behaviours for children who have suffered, trauma, neglect and abuse.

When Georgina's mum died, she had just started a university degree. She put it on hold to take care of her brother. She has recently completed her degree but talks of how difficult it is to do interviews, internships and first jobs when you have parenting commitments. She spoke about her frustrations on starting a new unpaid internship, then having to arrange to have a series of days off to oversee repair work being done on her flat, “there’s no one else to be there to let them in”, she said, “it has to be me”. She’s committed to her internship but worries that her employer will think that she’s not, because she has to take so many days off.

Many recent graduates have parents to fall back on when they need a place to stay, or some help with the rent when they get their first unpaid internship, but Georgina doesn’t have that safety net – she is the safety net for her three siblings.

Their determination to make a change is evident. By stepping in to do the right thing and keep their families together, they have exposed themselves to a complicated world of fight and frustration. They articulate their experiences boldly, aren’t afraid to tell it like it is, want to share what they’ve learnt and are keen to help change the system.

Through Grandparents Plus, Kelly has worked with Leeds University on their social work degree, giving her real life experiences to help them understand the complexities of becoming a kinship carer. With our support she’s setting up a kinship carer support group in her area and is considering a career working in child psychology something she said she wouldn’t have thought about before becoming a kinship carer. Olivia hopes to become a foster carer and Georgina is on track to begin a career in PR – starting an internship this week.

So what next?

As we listen to these funny, capable, inspiring women tell their stories, you can forget that underpinning everything is a sense of grief and loss. Grief for the death of a mother, the loss of a brother, sister or aunt to mental health or substance misuse. They are angry too and I think this anger and fighting spirit carries them through. It shouldn’t have to be a fight though.

They had lots of ideas of what we at Grandparents Plus and our partners could do to make them feel better supported and represented. Our Kinship Connected project workers who are working on the ground, delivering intensive support to carers in 15 local authority areas and developing peer support groups are increasingly supporting younger kinship carers too, and they are developing a deeper understanding about some of the unique challenges they face.

Dr. Meredith Kiraly, from the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne shared finding and carer stories from her research into sibling kinship carers in Australia. You can read more about these on our CEO, Lucy Peake’s blog here. We were also delighted to have Lorna Rooke from the North London consortium of local authorities who was keen to hear about the experiences of younger kinship carers.

As our three new friends headed home after the meeting, we were in awe of their energy and commitment. We look forward to meeting up with them again soon and working with our partners, other younger kinship carers and project workers to develop their ideas into workable solutions and make a lasting change. Watch this space.

If you are a younger kinship carer raising a child who is not your grandchild, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch and join our ideas group.

If you need advice and support, contact our advice service