Thousands of children, some as young as eight, are acting as unpaid carers across Sussex, sparking concerns about the impact on their school and leisure time.
According to a new study an estimated 3,117 youngsters under 16 are providing help and support to parents, siblings and family members around the county.
However, experts believe this is only the tip of the iceberg because many children do not consider themselves as a carer.
The burden of having to spend time looking after someone can have serious consequences for children’s education and charities warn every effort needs to be made to ensure they get the extra support they need.
Official figures from a study carried out by charities show there are 543 young carers in Brighton and Hove, while East Sussex has 1,079 and West Sussex 1,493. But experts at the
Brighton and Hove Carers Centre believe the actual number of carers in the city alone is closer to 2,000.
Kevin Hutchins, senior support worker for the young carers project at the centre, said a recent survey of schoolchildren in the city revealed 1,100 classed themselves as carers.
He said: “That ties in with our estimated figure of around 2,000 because not every child would have taken part in the survey and others may not consider themselves a carer – they just see it as something they do.”
Caring can range from helping out around the house, looking after their siblings, doing the shopping or giving a parent their medication.
This role reversal, where the child is looking after the parent, can have an impact on youngsters – in both a good and bad way.
Mr Hutchins said: “Many of the carers we see feel positive about being able to help and it gives them a feeling of responsibility.
“However they do have to face problems that other children don’t and it can sometimes make them appear a bit different.
“There may be reduced opportunities for them to socialise or go to after-school clubs and so they may not fit in with everyone else.
“If they are busy caring, then it could also have an effect on them in terms of studying, homework and education in general.”
The young carers centre has a dedicated school worker who visits schools across the city and provides training for staff and increases awareness.
The aim is to help teachers recognise the signs that a child may be a carer and understand the best ways to help them.
As well as informing school staff, the school worker also speaks to students and talks about what it can be like to be a young carer.
The project provides a range of social events, activities and respite trips away, to give young carers a chance to take a break and relax with others who understand the challenges they face.
The amount of support a child can provide often varies depending on their age, so the young carers project is divided into three age groups running from eight to 12, 12 to 16 and 16 to 25, to make sure people get the help they need.
Analysis carried out by the Carers Trust, The Children’s Society and Young Carers in Focus and published this month has revealed that young carers are lagging behind in school and missing out on their childhoods because of the demands placed on them.
* Around one in 20 young carers miss school because of the amount of support they have to provide at home.
*Young carers also have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level - the equivalent to nine grades lower overall than their peers.
*A quarter (26%) of young carers were bullied because of their caring role.
Children’s Society chief executive Matthew Reed said: “An alarming amount of young carers in your area are having their lives turned upside down, juggling school work and looking after their loved ones.
“We care passionately about their welfare and exposing the scale of the issue is simply not enough.
“That is why we are working with schools to improve the support these young carers get so that it is consistent across the country.
“One young carer slipping under the radar is one young carer too many.”
A recently established national Young Carers in Schools Programme also works towards making sure schools have the skills necessary to help youngsters in situations where they are looking after others.
It gives schools a chance to apply for bronze, silver and gold Young Carers in Schools Award as part of the scheme.
Mr Hutchins said: “We welcome this programme and hopefully it will help develop the work we are already doing.
“We are very keen to hear from schools interested in learning more.”
Brighton and Hove City Council commissioning manager in adult social care commissioning and partnership team, Gemma Scambler, said: “Young Carers are one of the five key outcomes for the Carers Strategy within Brighton and Hove, and we have a good track record of working in partnership with key organisations to ensure that young carers are recognised and supported.
“We are currently preparing for major changes in legislation from April 2015, which embraces a whole family approach to ensure the needs of all involved are considered.
“This approach will trigger support from both children’s and adult assessment services to identify why a child is caring, what needs to change and what would help the family to prevent children from taking on those responsibilities.”
Schools and local authorities interested in taking part in the Young Carers in Schools Programme should visit youngcarer.com/ycinschools.