Recognizing Glass Children

I was speaking with a friend tonight and shared with her a term and concept I had recently learned about, and it reminded me that I wanted to share it with you.

The concept was that of glass children, and I became aware of this by watching a TED presentation called Recognizing Glass Children: What it means to be the sibling of a special needs child. Though special needs children are referenced, I believe that the concept has wider applications than just to the special needs world.

First of all, what are glass children?  No, it’s not children who are fragile and breakable.  They are actually appear strong (note that I said they appear strong, not that they are strong).  Glass children are children who are growing up in a home with a sibling who takes up a disproportionate amount of parental energy.  This can be a child with an obvious physical or emotional disability, it can be a child with an addiction,  a serious illness, or significant behavioral issues.

The siblings of this child are called glass children because their overwhelmed parents look at them and rather than see their needs…. look right through them.

You might be thinking that there aren’t that many glass children out there, but as I watched this presentation, I thought to myself how many families I can think of who would qualify.

The purpose of the presentation was to raise awareness of the needs of the glass children, and give some tips to parents and those in the community about how to help them.  Glass children see the difficulties their parents are experiencing with their sibling, and their role is to be good and not make more problems.  So they are.  But this role comes at a heavy price, as they grow up having to cope with their needs themselves, feeling pushed aside in favor of their needy sibling.

As a parent in this situation, it can be very overwhelming to be told that your child who looks like they’re coping well – “Thank goodness so and so is doing well” – really needs help.  After all, it’s because they’re maxxed out in the first place that they aren’t available for that child.  So  what can you ask of them?  What these parents can do is recognize the reality that their child needs support, and if they can’t provide, find others who can – friends, professionals, family members.  Don’t look at their competent facade and assume everything is okay – it’s not.

We all think that our lives are busy, but there are families who are living close to crisis all the time.  You may feel busy, but they are constantly living on the edge of their abilities.  Look around at families who are struggling with high need children.  Can you invite the glass children for play dates, on trips with you, spend time with them?  Everyone is caught up with the needs of their sibling, but they need to be recognized, too.  This doesn’t have to be something you do all the time.  Every small action can make a big difference in the life of a glass child.


14 thoughts on “Recognizing Glass Children

  1. I would also include children whose parent is ill. When a family is going through the crisis of a parent battling a disease, they are in the same situation.

  2. I’ll watch the TED presentation another time (no time on a short Friday!) but I just want to say immediately that I relate so well to this concept. Dh and I have always struggled with this issue, and have been constantly trying to meet all the needs of all our children, when ds1 needs such a disproportionate amount of our attention. Thank G-d as he’s grown older it’s become much less of an issue, but there are still times when everything has to go on hold for him. The other kids understand, but it’s so hard for them.

  3. As a parent with several chronic diseases and an autistic son, this only makes me feel more guilty concerning my other children. We have no close family and I would never ask anyone at our synagoguefor help. We homeschool, so no teacher support. All I am saying is I do the best I can with what we have!

    1. You know, Crystal, I was thinking about the potential for parents to feel guilty when I put this up. This is always a challenge of sharing certain information (regarding health, nutrition, education, parenting, marriage – anything that is different from what the person reading is currently doing), because people tell me it makes them feel guilty. Dr. Gordon Neufeld says parental guilt is normal because it means that you recognize something you did was part of the issue. But at the same time, that’s also where your power as a parent comes from – knowing that there’s something you can do. So guilt and empowerment are two sides of the same coin.

      Even if we can’t do any more than we are – and I know what it’s like to be totally extended in every way – awareness of the issue means we aren’t fooling ourselves that our kids are doing fine just because they say they are. It’s a huge burden for kids to have to reassure their parents that everything is okay and to smooth things over when they themselves are struggling. So awareness is part of the solution, even if there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to change things right now. Maybe the opportunity will arise for conversations with them in which you let them know they don’t have to worry about being perfect and strong, maybe there will be ways to validate their experiences.

      I understand not wanting to ask others for help, I don’t like it either (most of us don’t!) -but would it be easier to do since it’s for the sake of your children? It’s not about there being something wrong with you. We all have limitations. Asking for help takes a lot of courage and sometimes we’re afraid to ask because if people don’t respond, it can leave a person feeling worse than not having asked at all to start with, right?.

      I don’t know what resources are available for you, for example if there is something like a Big Brother Little Brother organization, if high school girls do chesed and help out younger girls, but if it’s there, then you deserve to benefit from it. One day you’ll be on the other side of this and you’ll be able to help others, but for now take whatever help can make things easier for you.


      1. Crystal – please do ask people for help – at your shul or in your neighbourhood, or anywhere else that you possibly can. For specific help. Say exactly what you need. eg someone to pick up and bring home a child from an activity at a specific time on a particular day, someone to drive you to a doctor’s appointment, someone to babysit for an hour so you can have one-on-one time with your husband, someone to go shopping with you to help you with the cart and the groceries. Whatever little things will make your life easier. People are usually only to happy to help, but don’t know what is needed.

        I had a very dear friend who passed away 2 years ago from cancer and she was absolutely fantastic at asking for help. We all learned so much from her. She would ask for something specific, and if the answer was no, she’d ask for something else, and turn to someone else to get the help she needed for the first thing. She was such a strong person, and gave so much to everyone around her. It was a real lesson to her friends to see how she recognized that all those little things that people could help her with would make her life so much better/easier and that people would not only be willing, but happy to help.

        And anyway, what’s the worst that can happen? Someone says “no, I can’t help you”. It’s possible, but not so likely, really. More often you’ll get a “yes, certainly” or an “I can’t help you with that (or on that day), but I’d be happy to help with something else (or another time).”

  4. Thank you for this article. Always knew this intuitively, but feel validated that this has a name and the dynamic has been recognized and identified. Perspective is always a good thing.

  5. Thanks for sharing this…. This is so important. It puts in perspective lots that has happened to me… through my entire life. I’m now 43… had a ‘fair’ childhood, I’m married to my wife of almost 20 years – who has had chronic health issues from the start, and they multiply as the years go on, and a 6 yr old boy with mental health issues. Yes we’ve had holes in our walls for the past 2 years. And I wonder why I am depressed.

  6. Today is my brother’s birthday. this is the first time that I am away from him because I am in varsity.I miss him a lot but the thing is we really don’t have a ‘normal relationship’because he can’t speak and only hears little things like come or sit. So I was on youtube looking at videos of siblings of special need children and I came across Alicia’s video…wow she was describing me. I think my whole family can be described as Glass children but how can I help them get through this

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