What is a Glass Child?
Glass children is a term used to describe children whose needs are not seen or met as a result of growing up with a sibling that struggles with mental illness, chronic, illness, and/or a disability. Parents of children with chronic illness or disability are already overwhelmed and oftentimes don’t have the needed social support or resources to help their families. This can lead to caregiver burnout and increased levels of isolation from the family and the community.
It can be hard for parents to give equal levels of focus and attention to all of their children if one seems to need the most.
One major sign of Glass Child syndrome is role strain. This is the feeling of having to fill multiple roles at once. This can look like a pressure “to not give problems,” perfectionism, having to be “the good one.” This pressure comes from children seeing how hard their parents work and not wanting to add to their load. Some children will perceive themselves as burdensome. This can lead to children not viewing their parents as a resource or safe space. Leading to the internalization of their needs. In adolescence and adulthood, Glass Children have an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression.
Many Glass Children report feeling invisible. In conversation, many people usually just discuss or ask about their ailing sibling. When this occurs it can make children feel like no one cares about them despite all the hard work they put in.
Repressing your feelings is also very common. Many Glass Children recall expressing discontent or discomfort to parents and being told that they “should not feel that way.” This creates the idea that expressing any negative emotions was adding to parental burdens or invalidating the emotions of their caregivers which were now the priority, not theirs. There is also an urge to compare and minimize struggles with their sibling because “at least my problems are not that bad.”
When glass children grow up there can be a lot of guilt associated with having independent lives and not being able to provide as much support to their parents or ill sibling. The guilt can become even more complicated when accomplishments are shadowed by a feeling that they have achieved more in life than their sibling.
Hanvey, I., Malovic, A. and Ntontis, E. 2022. Glass children: The lived experiences of siblings of people with a disability or chronic illness. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology. 32 (5), pp. 936-948. https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.2602