CHILDHOOD is a time for having fun, making friends and gaining confidence. But for more than 1,300 young carers across the county, those years are filled with looking after sick or disabled parents or siblings – which is where Crossroads Care Cambridgeshire comes in.

WHEN Shannon O'Neill gets home from school, the first thing she does is check how her mum Michelle is.

Michelle, 39, suffers from fibromyalgia and adhesion-related disorder (ARD), a condition which causes her constant abdominal pain.

There are times when she is able to look after Shannon as she would like to but, on her bad days, the pain is so intense that 11-year-old Shannon must look after her.

That could mean flushing out the feeding peg that was used in the past to connect Michelle's colostomy bag, or giving her a massage to soothe her aching muscles.

Then it's on to the household chores: making dinner, cleaning, washing, drying, and locking the house up for the night - before she sits down to begin her homework.

Even when Michelle is having a good spell, the unpredictability of her condition means she is always in Shannon's thoughts.

"I'm always thinking of coming back at the end of the day and seeing how my mum is," said Shannon. "I don't like going to groups or after school clubs any more, because I'm scared to see what's going to happen."

Young carers are often the victims of bullying as they struggle to handle school, homework and their caring duties. As adults, they are twice as likely not to be in education or training as their peers, because caring has affected their education or would mean leaving their parent or sibling without care.

But since June 2010, Shannon and Michelle, of Shelley Close, Huntingdon, have been getting support from the Young Carers Project run by Crossroads Care in St Ives. The charity has been a reassuring influence for both of them: Shannon gets time to enjoy herself with peers, and Michelle knows her daughter has help available when she needs it.

Michelle said: "I just wish we had discovered Crossroads earlier. It's somewhere for her to talk about things that maybe she can't talk about with me. She can mix with others, socialise and have fun.

"I feel guilty about my condition. I feel it's my fault that Shannon has trouble, and I feel like I'm stopping her.

"I think Shannon has lost a lot of confidence, but Crossroads is a chance for her to get a break. She's got that freedom."

Crossroads' remit covers "enjoyment and education" for young people - giving them the time to relax, but also the support they need.

In recent months the group has organised day trips for youngsters from St Peter's and Hinchingbrooke schools to the beach at Hunstanton and the Mepal outdoor centre, and also organises practical training such as simple cooking courses.

Shannon, a Year 7 pupil at St Peter's, recently won a Christmas poster design competition organised by the charity, and will be presented with her prize at the Crossroads conference next month.

She said: "The outings give me a break and I know my mum is safe. It takes her off my mind and helps me relax."

Crossroads staff also work with primary and secondary schools to make teachers aware and offer in-school groups for youngsters to relax and get time to themselves.

And improving people's understanding across the board is key, said Gary Lant, youth leader at Crossroads Care Cambridgeshire, which supported more than 2,000 carers last year.

"Awareness of young carers is quite poor - we've spoken to some adults who didn't realise they had been young carers themselves. They just started doing some jobs, and it became normal life. Others just don't want to admit it."

INFORMATION: To find out more about the Crossroads Young Carers Project, see www.crossroadscarecambridgeshire.org.uk or call 0845 241 0954.