The Unexpected Role: When Children Become Caregivers

Childhood and adolescence are often marked by exploration, learning, and growth. However, when a parent is diagnosed with cancer, the dynamics within a family can shift dramatically. Children and teens may be stepping into caregiving roles, which can profoundly impact their emotional, mental, and social well-being.

Per the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), at least 5.4 million children and teens under 18 take an active role in caregiving for a parent with a chronic disease like cancer in the United States. These young caregivers face unique challenges and stressors that can significantly affect their development and well-being. Continue reading to learn more about the multifaceted challenges faced by young caregivers and insights into managing these challenges effectively.

The Emotional Toll on Young Caregivers

Children who become caregivers for a parent with cancer can experience a whirlwind of emotions. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness are common as they grapple with their parent's illness. A lack of understanding and uncertainty about the future can intensify these emotions.

Signs of Emotional Distress

  • Increased Anxiety: Persistent worry about their parent's health and the future.
  • Depression: Feelings of hopelessness and sadness.
  • Anger or Frustration: Difficulty processing their emotions may lead to outbursts or withdrawal

Supporting Emotional Well-being

Providing young caregivers a safe space to express their feelings and support their emotional well-being is crucial. Professional counseling and support groups can offer invaluable assistance. According to the American Cancer Society, open communication within the family and with healthcare providers can also help alleviate some of the emotional burdens.

The Mental Strain on Young Caregivers

Cognitive and Academic Challenges

The caregiving responsibilities can interfere with a child's academic performance and cognitive development. Caregiving youth frequently go unnoticed in schools, lacking formal recognition and support.

Balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities with caregiving duties can be overwhelming, leading to attendance issues, difficulty concentrating, assignment completion, and grade maintenance.

Coping Strategies for Mental Health

  • Time Management: Teaching children practical time management skills can help them balance their responsibilities.
  • Educational Support: Schools can offer additional support, such as counseling and tutoring, to help students stay on track academically.
  • Mindfulness and Stress-Relief Techniques: Meditation, yoga, and deep-breathing exercises can reduce stress and improve focus.

The Social Impact of Being a Young Caregiver

Social Isolation

Young caregivers may experience social isolation due to their unique responsibilities. They might miss out on social activities and peer interactions, leading to feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Building a Support Network

  • Peer Support Groups: Connecting with other young caregivers can provide a sense of community and understanding.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Encouraging participation in activities outside the caregiving role can help maintain a sense of normalcy and social engagement.
  • Family and Friends: Leveraging the support of extended family and friends can provide relief and enable the child to maintain social connections.

Coping Strategies and Support Systems

The U.S. does not formally acknowledge or support caregiving youth within family caregiving services or systems of healthcare support, which are only accessible to adults.

Children in caregiving roles deserve recognition and support for their vital roles within their families and communities. Several strategies and support systems can help mitigate the impact of these experiences. 

  • Professional Counseling: Professional counseling can provide young caregivers a safe space to express their feelings and develop coping mechanisms. Therapy can help them navigate the complex emotions associated with caregiving and build resilience.
  • Support Groups: Joining support groups can offer young carers a sense of community and understanding. Connecting with others in similar situations can reduce feelings of isolation and provide practical advice on managing caregiving responsibilities.
  • Community Resources: Community organizations can offer resources such as respite care, which gives young caregivers a break from their responsibilities. These services can provide much-needed relief and allow children to engage in everyday activities.
  • Political Advocacy: You can support caregiving youth by advocating for policy changes that provide more resources for these children. Tell your representative that you want policies in place for caregiving youth. 

Help Us Recognize & Support Young Caregivers

The American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) and Kesem recognize the unique challenges caregiving youth face. They are committed to providing support, resources, and advocacy to improve their quality of life. Recognizing their contributions and providing adequate support will enable us to help these young heroes navigate their challenging roles and ensure their well-being.

We need the public's help to raise awareness of the challenges faced by caregiving youth. You can support these youth by donating to AACY and Kesem, volunteering, or advocating for policy changes that provide more resources for them. Together, we can make a significant difference in their lives.

The AACY is a national non-profit organization dedicated to supporting children and adolescents caring for ill, injured, elderly, or disabled family members. For more information, visit

Kesem is the leading national organization that supports children 6-18 through and beyond a parent’s cancer. Kesem aims to ensure that every child impacted by a parent’s cancer is never alone. College student volunteers at over 120 chapters nationwide deliver free, creative, fun-filled Kesem programs that foster a lasting community. For more information, visit,, @CampKesem on X & Instagram, and @KesemNationwide on LinkedIn and TikTok.

To maintain a high standard of accuracy and reliability in the information provided to you, we ensure that our content is sourced from diverse, credible, and verified authorities, like academic institutions and journals, reputable media outlets, government agencies, and recognized industry experts.

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