Expert Advice

What Is A “Glass Child” & Why Is It All Over TikTok?

"Glass children" and their siblings are opening up about their experiences on both sides of the coin.

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Siblings of children with disabilities or chronic illness may become what's called "glass children,"...
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Parents of disabled and/or chronically ill children frequently face challenges the rest of us can't even begin to imagine. But a viral TikTok trend is highlighting the hidden struggle that siblings of chronically ill and/or disabled children face as they try to navigate the world in the shadows of a difficult situation.

With more than 70 million views and counting on TikTok alone, #glasschild and #glasschildsyndrome bring to light the experiences that a "glass child" might face throughout childhood and into adulthood. Though it's not an official medical or scientific term, "glass child" was popularized back in 2010 by speaker Alicia Maples during a TEDx Talk. Maples described it as a "healthy kid who has a special needs brother or sister, a special needs sibling," defining special needs as anything from physical and mental illness and/or disability to behavioral concerns, addiction, and the like.

Maples said that the glass doesn't represent the child being fragile or breaking easily but that their parents or caregivers "look right through [them], as if [they're] made of glass."

The oldest of three children, Maples shared that one of her younger brothers was diagnosed with autism, and another died at the age of four due to a terminal illness. She was left to care for herself, struggling with suicidal thoughts during childhood. "Glass children take on these caretaker responsibilities, and naturally, we are conditioned not to have any problems," she explained. "We are supposed to be perfect. When someone asked us how we were doing, the answer is always: I'm doing fine."

Some TikTok stories share what it's like to be a glass child, with others sharing the guilt of realizing their needs made their siblings the glass child. Scary Mommy chatted with a social worker and a neuropsychologist, who explained how parents can ensure their own "glass children" are met with the love, acceptance, and attention they need and deserve.

What are "glass child" behaviors?

"Even among the most compassionate and mature siblings, when one has a brother or sister with a chronic illness or disability, it can take a toll," says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. "These behaviors can begin in early childhood as they strive to develop independence and maturity, often out of necessity," adds Jillian Amodio, a social worker, author, and the founder of Moms For Mental Health. "Each child's experience will be different, but as they come into their tween and teen years, they could experience withdrawal from the family, behavioral, and/or mental health issues. They might also seek outside acceptance and attention," says Amodio.

"Whereas a younger child might throw a tantrum when they are lacking attention, an older child senses that their parents are physically and emotionally overwhelmed caring for the other sibling," says Hafeez. "They develop this 'glass' persona as a coping mechanism for themselves and also to be a people pleaser. They mistakenly feel that they need to act as if they are void of problems; they tend to take on responsibilities prematurely and have an overriding desire to make others happy."

Socially, Hafeez says, "It can impact the 'healthy' child's ability to have fun; often, plans need to be changed to accommodate the other sibling. They may feel hesitant to invite other children/teens to their homes to socialize." Emotionally, she adds, "there can be rivalry, jealousy for parental attention, resentment toward their sibling, anxiety, and depression."

How can you tell if your child is struggling?

Some signs you might have a "glass child" on your hands include "feeling withdrawn, angry, depressed, anxious, or their grades are suffering," says Hafeez. Conversely, if they're "pushing themselves too hard to excel, and/or they have lost interest in friends and hobbies," they might be suffering silently.

What can/should you do?

If you sense your child's needs or desires aren't being met or are leaving them feeling ignored, isolated, or alone, both experts recommend open and honest communication. "Checking in with each child as an individual is going to be an important part of assessing their health, wellness, and overall well-being," says Amodio. "Understanding the 'why' behind behaviors is important as well." She notes that parents often see "problem" behaviors as something that needs to be "fixed," when a child might simply need to be heard and understood.

For instance, "No amount of punishment is going to solve a problematic behavior if the behavior is a cry for attention or help," says Amodio. "Look for changes in mood and/or personality. Assess whether a child's behaviors are within the realm of 'normal' development or if, perhaps instead, they are performing at a higher rate of maturity. Is this potentially because they feel they have to? If a child is acting out, engage with them from a lens of compassionate curiosity. Why is this happening? How can the family work together to support the needs and development of the different siblings?"

"Giving praise is always a great tactic to ensure that kids feel seen and valued, but be sure that if a child is constantly being praised for doing high-level tasks that they do not feel that their worth is only tied to their productivity and independence," she adds. Just because you might not notice something or they don't vocalize it doesn't mean it's not there. "Ask your child how they are feeling and what they might want or need," she says.

Both pros note one silver lining: "Glass children" often can and do develop into empathetic and compassionate adults. "They might have a greater appreciation for kindness, be more apt to display inclusive tendencies, and have enhanced maturity. They may also develop stronger emotional bonds," says Amodio.

But it's your job as a parent to "be clear that more time does not equal greater love," says Hafeez. No matter the difficulties you face as a parent, she says, "It is essential not to be emotionally neglectful or not physically present enough for your other children and assume they will understand the situation at play." Of course, checking in with a licensed professional for information or extra support is always a good idea, too.

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