Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT
Clinical Director, KPS
“Glass child” is not a diagnostic term or a clinical term, but it has been trending on social media as a descriptive term for children who feel that their parents “look right through them” like glass because they have a sibling taking up a disproportionate amount of parental attention. Since this is not a clinical term, there are also not specific boundaries around the reason why one sibling may be taking up disproportionate energy. Originally, the term applied to children who have a disabled sibling requiring extensive physical help. Now, it may be used to describe children who have siblings with mental health diagnoses, substance abuse, or chronic illness, with the key factor being that the sibling’s condition requires a large amount of parental involvement.
Those who use this term are also quick to point out that the term “glass child” does not indicate the fragility of the child (they are often extremely resilient!), but rather the invisibility of the child.
I hesitated to write about this subject, because in bringing attention to this term, I don’t want to bring blame along with it. Parents who have children who are struggling physically with chronic illness or disability, or who have children struggling emotionally with diagnoses such as Reactive Attachment Disorder, or who have children struggling with addiction are generally overwhelmed. Out of love and concern for their child, they are working overtime to do all they can to alleviate their child’s suffering if there is suffering, and to help their child live their best, fullest life. They don’t need blame or guilt - they don’t have time for that. They should be supported to the best ability of their communities. In addition, the sibling needing the attention should also not be blamed for getting their needs met. They should not be blamed for needing more time, attention, or energy. They are not at fault. And at the same time, the unique experiences of the glass child should be recognized and their unique needs should also be addressed. In order to recognize these unique needs, let’s explore what glass children commonly report as their experience.
Alicia Maples originally popularized the term “glass child” in her TedX Talk in 2010, and more recently “glass child syndrome” was a viral TikTok trend. Glass children frequently report feeling lonely or insignificant. They report trying to be perfect so that they do not cause any problems to their parents. They are frequently highly sensitive to the needs of others. They may feel socially isolated (as peers do not understand what their family is going through), and they may feel guilty, because they blame themselves for their sibling’s struggle. They may also feel guilty about being angry/resentful at their sibling/parents.
How can parents and communities support glass children? Parents need to recognize that every emotion that they themselves might experience regarding having a child with a disability or diagnosis that takes a large amount of time and energy (exhaustion, stress, anger at the situation, guilt, sadness) the glass child also experiences, but with the coping skills of a child. So model good self care for your glass child by practicing healthy coping strategies yourself. Ask them to share their experiences and their struggles, and let them know that it is okay for them not to be okay. Let them know that it is okay not to be perfect and to have needs. Recognize with your child the aspects of your family’s situation that are not ideal but born out of necessity. Don’t accept a quick “I’m fine” when you ask how they are doing, and let them know that all of their feelings are okay for them to feel and to share with you. Set aside daily check-in times and regular alone times with firm boundaries around these times to protect it. Honor your child’s strengths and ask how they want to be involved in care for their sibling, if appropriate. Most children and teenagers want to help (they love their sibling!) and most children/teenagers feel empowered by helping, but this should be on their own terms. Families are at their strongest when every person in the family (both adult and child, regardless of physical ability, mental capacity, emotional stability, or any other factor) is seen, heard, and held in love and respect.
To listen to two glass children share their experiences on TedTalks, see these links:
Or to continue reading more, check out this article: