Child & adult holding hands

Invisible Young Carers in Europe: What Hides Their Existence?

Nagisa Osaki, MSc Comparative Public Policy, University of Edinburgh

Children responsible for caring for their families or others in the home, known as young carers, have recently become visible in Europe. For many years, only UK has provided support frameworks for young carers, while in other countries, their existence has been barely acknowledged by policymakers, public authorities, and society (Leu et al., 2022).

Existence and Awareness of Young Carers

Common sense dictates that children should be ‘care receivers’, not ‘care providers’. However, in Europe, it is estimated that 7–8% of young people provide substantial care for their families. Their caring responsibilities can include emotional support, practical tasks, personal care, looking after their younger siblings, household chores and substantive care for sick or disabled family members. They are considered to be at higher risk of poverty, loss of education and employment training opportunities, physical and mental health problems and being bullied at school (Vizard et al., 2019).  Hence, appropriate support should be supplied to those facing a heavy burden.

To tackle the issue of young carers, it is first important for governments to recognise and identify them. Leu et al. (2022) categorised national awareness and policy responses to young carers in different countries. In 2021, the UK was classified as having an advanced response, with widespread awareness at all levels of government and society. Sweden was classified as having an intermediate level with some awareness, and Italy was classified as being at an early stage with a low degree of awareness. Why are there such differences in awareness among European countries?

The UK has been taking action for more than 20 years. With the transition from Keynesian welfare state government to the limited government in the 1980s, public spending on social policy was reduced. At the same time, people who were not eligible for government support, including young carers, were identified (Okada, 2002). Aldridge and Becker (1993) were the first to focus on young carers in 1993, and their work led to a growing interest in young carers by UK scholars and the public authorities. Two pieces of legislation, the Care Act 2014 and the Children and Families Act 2014, set the policy framework for supporting young carers in England. The 2011 census identified 177,918 young carers aged 5–17 in England. As such, UK is considered a leading country in terms of the policy response to young carers.

In Sweden, it has been believed that the state should provide care for adults in need of care, and young carers should not exist (Leu et al., 2022). Therefore, Sweden has long avoided defining young carers. The concept of a protective welfare state has paradoxically concealed the existence of young carers who need public support. As a result, there has never been an official national survey on young carers and adequate support for them has not yet been established. A recent regional survey of 15–16-year-olds in southwest Sweden found that 7% of children reported doing caring activities.

In Italy, grandchildren are more likely to care for grandparents, and the aging population is increasing the burden of care for children. It is estimated that 7% of the population aged 15–24 are caring for vulnerable or elderly adults, such as their grandparents. However, the family-based welfare system, in which family members are seen as responsible for caring for others in the family, means that formal care resources in the community have not been well developed (Landi et al., 2020). The government may not have seen the existence of young carers as a problem.

Further Discussions

Although there are many families of refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds in Europe, the research suggests that ethnicity, race and class inequalities affect young carers’ access to support (Alexander, 2021). Ottósdóttir (2020) noted that children from such backgrounds provide more care due to language barriers, information needs, difficulties accessing welfare support for their parents and long periods of poverty. However, the distance of asylum-seeking and refugee families from social security services makes such children less visible.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted upon young carers. Leu and Becker (2016) stated that disruptions and reductions to public and private services, such as home and day-care centres, combined with the closure of schools during lockdowns, increased the care burden on young carers. The risk of viral transmission among vulnerable care receivers might have made it more difficult for young carers to have contact with anyone outside of the home. It will take time to identify new young carers who have taken on roles due to the pandemic, and they may never be identified or their existence recorded.


In sum, a complex mix of past backgrounds and current transnational issues have created the ‘invisible young carers’ of today. In Europe, legislation remains at a regional level, except in the UK. Although research is gradually progressing, it is important to have extensive awareness of young carers across Europe. It could prompt each country to work towards implementing appropriate policies for young carers, tailored to their own national care system.