Looking after yourself: a guide for young people caring for a parent

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help young people who do a lot to help their parent experiencing mental illness (and by extension their family) recognise when it’s time to ask for help and what kinds of support may be available.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Do you help your parent or caregiver a lot?

In most families it’s normal for young people to help around the house. For example:

  • A young child might take their dishes to the sink
  • An older child might help put the folded clothes away
  • A young adult might take on more challenging jobs like looking after younger siblings occasionally or mowing the lawn.

If you have a parent living with illness or disability, you might take on responsibilities that other people your age aren’t usually expected to.

Do you often:

  • clean the house?
  • cook meals?
  • wash the clothes?
  • pay bills?
  • make sure your parent takes their medication?
  • make sure your family members go to their appointments?

You might also:

  • feel the need to be a peacekeeper and stop family members from fighting
  • worry about your parent when you are at school and so find it difficult to concentrate
  • change your behaviour to try and prevent your parent getting upset.

If this sounds familiar know that you’re not alone. In Australia there are over 230,000 people under 25 who help support a parent or family.1

So what do you do when the extra stuff you have to do at home for the family becomes too much? It’s OK to ask for help – in fact there is a strength in knowing when you need extra support and asking for help.

‘I never thought of my life or Mum as being any different from anyone else’s. I attended school. Sometimes I would make dinner for us. I played with my friends… and had my favourite toys. Sometimes I stayed up all night because Mum couldn’t sleep. I would read stories to my brother before bed. I knew how to use the washing machine and stove. I didn’t even think about if other kids did this in their homes.’

Jess, South Australia 

What is it like for young people supporting a parent or their family?

There are many reasons why children and young people might need to help out a lot at home. Sometimes it can feel like there is no one else to help do this work. Other times, young people want to protect their parents’ privacy because they are worried about hurting them or want to save the family from any shame. As a young person it can be really hard work, physically and mentally to take on this extra load and it’s OK to have strong feelings about it. Supporting a parent who is struggling can be challenging not only because of the physical tasks but also because of the increased emotional responsibility. This emotional responsibility might not be as obvious but it is just as important to think about.

You might experience conflicting emotions. This means that you feel two opposite or different feelings at the same time. For example:

  • You care about your parent and want to help them, but are tired of worrying and feel annoyed you have to help out so much.
  • You want to protect your parent’s privacy, but you also need to let someone else know how hard things are so you can get some help.
  • You know your parent is unwell but at the same time you don’t understand why their illness means they can’t do normal things around the house for you and your family.
  • You feel worried about your younger sibling/s and want to protect them, while wishing someone would look after you.

It is important to remember that it is OK to seek support to deal with what is happening in your life, even if your parent doesn’t want you to. Your life and experiences are important too, and you need to put yourself first sometimes.

Caring for a parent who is living with disability or illness can sometimes make you feel lonely, as if you are carrying a heavy load all on your own – especially if your friends don’t get it. Letting a few trusted friends know what is happening at home can help you feel less alone. Sharing what is happening might also help others understand changes in your behaviour, such as sad moods or not wanting to see friends as much as usual.

When it’s time to ask for help

It can be hard to know when things at home are hard enough that you and your family need to ask for help. Sometimes the situation at home will change suddenly, for example with an accidental injury or a parent becoming unwell over a short space of time. You might have had to quickly step up to take on more responsibility and often it’s unclear how long you will need to help for. Other times the extra jobs and responsibilities might have built up slowly over time. In both cases it’s hard for the whole family and affects everyone in different ways.

You likely need extra support if:

  • you are struggling to find time for schoolwork and are falling behind
  • you don’t have enough time to hang out with friends
  • you have no ‘down time’ to do fun things that you enjoy
  • you are tired all or most of the time
  • you don’t have time for a part-time job or can’t find time to apply for jobs
  • you feel stressed and worried all or most of the time
  • you feel sad, frustrated or angry all or most of the time
  • you are not getting enough sleep; and
  • you often feel overwhelmed and unsure whether you can keep doing all the extra stuff you’ve taken on.

It’s quite normal to have mixed feelings about your situation and you may even feel resentful that so many responsibilities have been put on you. Whatever feelings you have they are OK and it’s normal to feel upset sometimes. But if you regularly (more often than not) feel overwhelmed and stressed, it’s important to reach out for help.

What kinds of support are available?

1. Talk to trusted people
One of the first things you can do is talk to your parent (if possible), other trusted adult family members or friends. Let them know that while you understand why you need to help out more, you are finding the extra responsibilities hard to manage. They may not have realised the impact on you up to this point and knowing how you are affected might help them take steps to reduce the level of responsibility on you over time.

2. Talk to your doctor
Do you have a family or local doctor (also known as GPs, or general practitioners)? Doctors can be a great source of advice and support because they know a lot about a range of different issues. In addition to checking in with you about your own health, they can also connect you with other supports as needed. When talking to the doctor, be as honest as possible about what you’re doing to support your parent and how you are finding things difficult. They will be able to offer advice and provide access to other supports should they be needed. Appointments can usually be made over the phone, online or in person. If you are 14 years or older, you can visit a doctor (also known as a GP, or general practitioner) without your parents’ OK. Some of the cost of the visit can be covered by Medicare, but you’ll need to know your Medicare card number. If you don’t know your Medicare card number and you are 15 years or older you can get your own Medicare card online.

To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

3. Accessing government support
Depending on your family’s situation, you might be able to receive government support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and respite care. Respite care is when your loved one is cared for by someone else for a period either at home or in another location, so you can have a rest from the extra responsibilities. Financial support is also available through other avenues. A list of financial help available to carers can be found on the Better Health Channel website.

4. Access support through the Carer Gateway
The Carer Gateway is a program which provides emotional, practical and financial support for those caring for a loved one to manage their normal daily tasks and activities. The Carer Gateway offers different kinds of help – from someone to talk to who ‘gets it’ to help with seeking respite care if that’s what the family decides on. Call the Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737 or go to the website for more options.

5. Talk to your teacher or school counsellor/Wellbeing Officer
Not only are school staff such as teachers, school counsellors and Wellbeing Officers trained to be able to support young people with more than just their schoolwork, they usually want to help you be the best you can be. By talking to them about what you are experiencing at home and the extra responsibilities you have taken on they will start to get an understanding of your situation.

School staff can help by supporting you with schoolwork, including extensions or make up lessons, and even tutoring in some cases. They can also offer a level of emotional support and, if appropriate to your situation, can speak with your parent/s too. You might feel embarrassed and unsure about telling an adult at your school about you and your family’s personal life, and you are not the first to feel this way. It’s important to remember that adults in schools have supported other young people like you, and they won’t be shocked by or judgemental about what you tell them. They want to help you and it’s far easier for them to arrange the right support if you can tell them as much about your situation as you feel comfortable with. When adults see young people reaching out for help they view it as a very good thing, and a sign of your strength and resilience.

6. Look online
You will see the term ‘young carer’ used in a lot of online information. Young carer is used to describe someone under 25 years who provides unpaid care and support to family members or friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, an alcohol or other drug issue, or who are frail-aged. While you might not really like the term ‘young carer’ (and that is fine) please don’t be to put off by it because there are many great young carer support programs available. These include:

In creating this guide, we asked people with lived experience – people who grew up with a parent who had a mental illness – for their thoughts about what helped them. Their valuable advice includes what they would like to have told their younger selves, and what they’d like you to know.

‘It was really hard for me to talk to my friends about my loved one’s difficulties, and when I did, they didn’t understand. I want you to know that you’re not alone and there are people you can talk to. It’s really important that you look after yourself and put yourself first (at least sometimes) – because you matter.’

– Heather, Victoria

‘It can be really tricky when what you are going through at home is different to your friends. I want you to know you are doing a good job, and it’s OK if things aren’t perfect. Getting support means you don’t have to do it all and you can also focus on yourself too.

– Jess, South Australia

Asking for support is a real strength. Think about a friend going through the same thing – wouldn’t you want them to get help? You deserve the same support.


1. Carers Australia. (2022). Young carers.

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