Children, Young Carers & COVID

Over the past year the world we once knew has become very different for all of us. We’ve all faced personal and professional challenges on a different scale and there’s no real light at the end of the tunnel. But most of us reading this will be of a certain age, we’ve lived our lives to some extent, we’ve experienced things we can, for the time being anyway, no longer experience. Not everyone can handle that, no matter how insignificant those experiences are in the grand scheme of things, they’re important to someone.

So, imagine you’re 9 years old. Mum and Dad are now working from home all of the time. You’re being home-schooled by your parents (who, to be honest, are struggling to understand let alone teach what you need to know) and you’ve hardly seen your friends. Sure it was fun to start with, but the novelty’s worn off.

Now imagine you’re a 14 year old girl and your older brother is seriously ill. Your mum works every hour she possibly can so you’re relied on to look after your 17 year old brother. You do it because you’ve always done it. But now you no longer have the release of school, you don’t have an internet enabled device at home so you’re cut off from life, trying to keep up with school work and looking after your brother.

This is reality for many children, as innocent beings thrust into a world they don’t deserve as a child. The 14 year old is a Young Carer who is one of 700,000 young carers throughout the UK.

This week it’s Children’s Mental Health Week and we heard from four very different individuals about the very real challenges that children and Young Carers are facing today.

Very real challenges that children and Young Carers are facing today
Very real challenges that children and Young Carers are facing today

Hosting the discussion was Mel Noton, retired Service Manager for CAMHS Oxfordshire and currently as a Corporate Coach within 4Thought. Mel is a nurse by trade and a health visitor and has worked clinically in the NHS for 31 years as a Senior Manager. The last part of Mel’s service in the NHS was in children’s mental health across Oxfordshire.

But first we hear from Matt Gregor who has worked at a school in West Oxfordshire for 11 ½ years. “My passion is for physical education and mental health and I do believe there is a massive connection between the two. That’s why I’m here to further the conversation about children’s mental health, especially given it’s Children’s Mental Health Week.

Matt Gregor, Bladon Primary School
Matt Gregor, Bladon Primary School
Sabiene North, Be Free Young Carers
Melissa Noton
Melissa Noton, 4Thought

“My main profession is PE and coaching. Four years ago I lost my mum and immediately pretended to be the tough guy. I put on a front that I could cope, but then it hit me like a rock. It occurred to me that nobody ever talks about this sort of thing in a school environment. My release was going to the gym and exercising. It was then that I reached out to local services, which is where I met Mel. We discussed what third party charities existed that could help in these scenarios to provide support, mainly for children as it struck me that if I couldn’t cope, then how could children without the appropriate support.

“I did a triathlon to raise money for children’s mental health and then met Oxfordshire Youth who provided training for teachers in schools. It kicked on from there and I developed a really big passion for the interaction of physical education and children’s mental health. I firmly believe if children can get that support at a young age and understand it’s OK to open up, whether it’s a small feeling or a big feeling. Kids have down days….everyone has down days, it’s just giving them the coping mechanisms so they can understand what is happening to them and they can support each other.

“We then developed the mental health and wellbeing programme where everything we did we did with parents first. The parents were clearly anxious when they knew we were going to talk about mental health. They were concerned that we were going to use the word ‘mental’ and that epitomises the stigma around mental health and wellbeing generally. Some still associate mental health with a straight-jacket and being locked up.

“For us we wanted to embed every mental health training programme into the community and we launched programmes with the help of people like Mel. We ran projects for parents at school so that before we ran anything with children, we ran it past the parents first. We covered anxiety, stress and all the main mental health areas. Parents then gradually warmed to what we were doing and we began to bring it into the school system where PHSE lessons became mental health lessons. We then brought in growth mind set and the programme really began to flow and the children have really embraced it. We now have children who are able to share their thoughts and feelings.”

Mel adds. “I remember seeing three children at the school and they were rather ‘unsettled’ – always wanting to ‘leg it’ and required a lot of attention and couldn’t thrive. They had low self-esteem and didn’t feel they were getting the attention they needed. You then told me how you used sport in the playground to help them thrive and it transformed them and they actually felt successful and good at something.”

Carers can be very young children

Matt continues. “It’s often the case that students who struggle in the classroom thrive in a sports environment, they’re top of the class in PE and leading sessions. It’s almost like having split personalities – I think they find there’s less pressure in PE than in a classroom…they thrive in the space, there’s less right or wrong, no specific answers and more opportunities to flourish without too many constraints. Everyone can have a different level of responsibility, be good at something even if it’s collecting cones, everyone can feel involved, important and have a sense of worth. In a classroom it can be really frightening for a child not to be able to put their hand up and answer a question. It can make them withdraw more into themselves. There’s a sharper focus on right and wrong and that can really affect some children…they develop a hate for school or a certain subject, that affects home life, they then struggle at home, mum and dad can’t cope and that’s before COVID. Now the pressure’s on parents to step up which puts pressure on everyone. Do parents have the confidence to teach maths and English? If the parents can’t support their children, the child feels unsupported and that creates even more turmoil.

“So, as a school, we offer parenting classes and talk to them about the methods we use for maths and English so we’re giving the parents the basic skills to support their children and to teach at home so they can help to stop the turmoil and allow children to feel they are getting support at home or school.

“We do all sorts of things to support the children and help them to have a growth mindset.”

Paul Ballinger, STL
Richard Rosser
Richard Rosser, B4

Mel commented. “It’s great to see what you’ve been doing Matt and this leads nicely into the discussions that Paul and I have been having. From my work I saw how children are under so much pressure because their parents are pulled in so many different directions, primarily due to work. Now, with lockdown, that pressure has intensified and has changed the dynamics by bringing more pressures into home life. We have been talking about coaching techniques in the workplace to support adults so they in turn can support their families with appropriate support.”

Paul is Managing Director at STL Communications Ltd based in Witney. “The whole family unit is super important right now and the pressures have been ramped up with COVID because of home-schooling. It’s about being considerate as an employer and understanding what needs to be done throughout the day and the week (for the family unit), especially when they’re in such close proximity to each other.

“Sadly, it’s probably true that most adults prioritise work over family when they’re working from home. Pre-COVID that was for one or two days a week if your job allowed for you to work from home. You might have needed to work from home to get certain things done and home provided you with the peace and quiet to do that. That’s certainly not where most households are right now. Most of us do put work first but it’s important to apportion equal time to your family. It’s about making children feel valued and accepted and that they feel they can communicate, as Matt has said.

“I’m trying to do the same with my team…I need them to feel accepted and that they can communicate and that they do feel they are valued. That can be very difficult when you and your colleagues are working disparately. You can’t just reach out to someone in the office and ask them how they are, that’s gone. We’re missing a vital part of our normal communication and we have to compensate for that. It’s not normal what we’re doing, we’re not homeworking. This is terrifying to many people. We’re little islands trying to work as a team and there’s not a course in the world that’s taught us how to do this.

“We’re literally tip-toeing through this and there’s a danger that some people regress. As an MD, I’ve asked Mel how I spot that regression and identify it before it regresses to ensure that someone can share their problems without judgement and get them to a good place so they feel they can still contribute.”

It’s about making children feel valued and accepted

Mel adds. “We’ve talked about coaching techniques to help your staff and also to indirectly help families feel ‘received’. I was taught that word a few years ago on a course. It really struck me…it’s not often we feel ‘received’ by someone, heard and understood that and it’s multiplied in the workplace because it’s ‘question, answer, question, answer’. Those ‘corridor conversations’ have gone so we need to find something to create a supportive environment without providing everyone with therapy.

“We’ve discussed providing training for senior leaders to provide that support so they can be taught how to enquire, how to listen, to understand, how to clarify what the issues are and learn how to give space rather than demand results, results, results.”

Paul continues. “We’re going to trial this at STL and hopefully this will trickle down into the family so everyone can feel valued.”

Mel concludes. “What we then hopefully do is model best practice and ensure people can blossom and grow rather than worry that by doing or saying something it might set them back in some way…this applies to work, school, everywhere. If we help and encourage people to try things, it might open up a whole new world of opportunity that they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to explore.”

Sabiene North is Fundraising and Events Coordinator at Be Free Young Carers and brings a further dimension to the challenges young people are now facing. “We’re an Oxfordshire based charity which looks after young carers between 8 and 18 years old. We provide respite activities, one to one emotional support and we have a bespoke befriending service. We also offer first aid training for the young carers so they can respond to the person they’re caring for, which is usually a parent or sibling.

“It’s really interesting hearing from Matt about the connection between sport and mental health. A lot of our events for our young carers revolve around sport…it’s vital for our young carers to be able to manage their mental health as we’ve seen increased mental health issues amongst our young carers during COVID. They’re really struggling at the moment.

“Just before Christmas, we sent wellbeing boxes out to each young carer. It was really well timed. Each box came with a calendar of wellbeing activities they could do. So, one day they can go for a walk, or they can call a friend, just trying to keep that connection and try to get outside….being outside is crucial for their mental health.

“Fingers crossed, if schools go back in March, the mental health and wellbeing of our young carers will improve, but it’s pretty been pretty dire for them during the pandemic. However, I do fear we’re just going to see huge increases in mental health issues amongst our young carers and children generally. It’s something we’re acutely aware of and we’re trying to do as much as we can, within government restrictions, to manage their mental health issues.”

Mel adds. “From my experience working in children’s mental health and wellbeing, young carers are a group that are very ‘unseen’ and that was before lockdown. A lot of people won’t even know they’re caring for a relative or a young family member.”

Sabiene continues. “A lot of young carers don’t realise they’re young carers either because they just do it, they think it’s normal. They’re either always had an ill parent or a sibling that needs care. You’re right, they are the ‘unseen’ and isolation with lockdown has just magnified that.

“One thing we’ve been working on is the laptop campaign because a lot of our young carers didn’t have access to online classes because they didn’t have wi-fi enabled devices. So, we launched the laptop campaign in early January and we’ve managed to get laptops to those that needed them. It’s not just for school work but it’s also to help them stay in contact with their friends, which is vital for them. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way they stay in touch with friends.”

Mel asks. “How do you monitor your young carers’ mental health?”

Sabiene responds. “We monitor their mental health through their parents where we can. But many of their parents have mental health issues also which makes obtaining feedback very difficult. We also provide mental health first aid courses to support them.”

Matt adds. “We have areas in the school to help children cope with issues like the ‘cosy corner’ which we encourage children to go in if they need a break and we monitor how often the children use these support mechanisms. We then use that to evaluate problems which might be behind certain behaviours.”

Mel continues. “We all need to find ways to notice and understand behaviour and get to the bottom of what is behind that behaviour. For example, with a child, naughty behaviour might be triggered by an issue at home and we mustn’t misinterpret that behaviour. The same goes for colleagues in the workplace….what does a change of behaviour mean? How can we spot warning signs and provide support sooner rather than later? If an employer can help provide support and take the pressure off a colleague at work, then it can have a positive impact on the family also.

“Thank you everyone for your time. It’s been a really interesting discussion.”

Matt. “We could have gone on for hours.”

Paul. “It’s been a real pleasure, thank you.”

Sabiene. “Thank you everyone, good to meet you all.”

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