What Is a 'Glass Child'? And How Can Parents Avoid Raising One?

Siblings of children with disabilities may have additional needs too. There are some simple things parents can do to help siblings feel more supported.

A family with two children enjoying a day out together in Beadnell, North East England. They are moving past the harbour and the main focus is the father running while pushing his daughter who is a wheelchair user. They all look excited.

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A "glass child' is the sibling of a child with disabilities who feels invisible. It's a phrase trending on TikTok. Videos are surfacing from children who suspect they were glass children, or who believe their sibling may have been a glass child. But this isn't just a social media trend. It means so much more to children living it.

The term dates back to a 2010 TEDx Talk by Alicia Maples, who has a brother with autism. In her talk, she compares siblings of children with disabilities to "glass children." Not because they are fragile, but because parents "look right through us."

It's a phrase I relate to. When my son was born with multiple disabilities, I became immediately overwhelmed with his needs, but I was also concerned about his then-2-year-old sister. I knew my son would have numerous doctor and therapy appointments and I was worried that my daughter might feel ignored. Or, as she got older, she would take on more responsibility than she should for her age.

"We don't want to force these siblings to grow up too quickly or to hold them to developmentally inappropriate expectations," says Kelly Fradin, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Advanced Parenting.

As my daughter, and now my younger son, have been growing up, I do my best to carve out time specifically for them but, with this new phrase becoming popular, I wanted to make sure I was doing all I can to make sure I see them, too.

Ways to Support Siblings of Children with Disabilities

There are things you can do as a parent to make sure you aren't "looking right through" the siblings of your children with disabilities. I spoke to a few experts and received some very helpful advice to bring into my own home.

Provide siblings with age-appropriate information

Make sure you include your children in conversations and provide them with information that is appropriate for their age and situation.

"Siblings experience disability just like everyone else in the family," says Emily Holl, director of the Sibling Support Project. Have open communication and be honest. Often, these children are very aware of the needs of their sibling. "By not sharing information, children may think a topic is off limits when they really need to talk," Holl adds.

Set aside quality time for the siblings

Time is often what children need most from their parents. Holl has heard from many adult siblings who reflect fondly on running errands with just their parents, or the 20 minutes they had alone with them after a sibling has gone to bed. They worked on a puzzle, watched a TV show, talked, or read a book together.

Sara Loftin, clinical therapist at Children's Health in Dallas, Texas agrees, "Spending 15 minutes a day with each child individually can go a long way."

Create a joint journal

This is an activity both the parents and the sibling can take part in. Sometimes writing feelings is easier for children than talking about them.

Holl says parents can write a journal entry as simple as "I'm thinking of you. Write back when you can," and leave it on their child's pillow. It helps children know you are thinking about them and want to engage with them.

"I've learned first-hand that journaling is an easy and effective method to communicate feelings," says Jeniece Stewart Dortch, founder and executive director of the non-profit Special Needs Siblings, as well as a parent of a child with disabilities. "I write an entry and my kiddo responds or shares on a subsequent page. It doesn't have to be daily, or always words. When they were little, it may have been a picture or a reminder of how I see them."

Connect the sibling with other children in the same situation

Find ways for the sibling to link up with other children who have a sibling with a disability. Children can feel isolated if they have trouble relating to others. "Sibling experience" groups, such as Sibshops, can help bring children together with other siblings of children with disabilities. It gives them a space that is understanding, validating, and where they don't have to explain a backstory.

Include siblings in plans for the future

"Kids worry about the future and how they will care for their sibling," Holl says. "Get into the habit of including siblings in conversations about your child's care at every stage, so 'the future' isn't big, abstract, scary, and looming. Instead, it's the natural next step."

She says it can be good for siblings to be included in Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings. By inviting the sibling to share their thoughts about the strengths and abilities of the child with disabilities, they can provide valuable insights from a peer perspective.

She recommends inviting but not obligating siblings to participate. "Siblings should be involved to the extent they want to be," Holl adds.

Support your child's outside interests

Encourage the sibling to have a life of their own. Having interests in activities outside of their role as a sibling is important for development. Children should be able to experience all that life has to offer, and parents can help by nurturing their interests.

Listen to your child

The most important thing to remember is children want to be heard and have their feelings validated. "Siblings of children with disabilities are usually very empathetic, and they often internalize their feelings," says Loftin. "They need an outlet. Not every family is the same and everyone has a different experience. Children are dealing with big stressors but don't have big adult coping skills."

Children may not be comfortable sharing feelings of resentment, guilt, or a sense of responsibility, and giving them space to share their feelings is key. "Reassuring siblings that their feelings are understandable and okay will help them move through those feelings with more comfort and confidence," adds Holl. "This is a hugely important skill that they will take with them through life."

How Do I Know If I Have a 'Glass Child'?

There are some signs you can look out for with your child. "Keep an eye out for red flags," Loftin says.

For example, a child may act more withdrawn if they feel overshadowed. Pay attention if children seem anxious or depressed, or lose interest in hobbies or friends. Any major shift in a child's emotions or behaviors can indicate they are struggling.

"Children with disabilities may take more time, but it doesn't mean they are more important," she says. "Show siblings they are important too."

Sara Loftin, clinical therapist

Children with disabilities may take more time, but it doesn't mean they are more important. Show siblings they are important too.

— Sara Loftin, clinical therapist

At the end of the day, parents of children with disabilities are juggling a lot. And we need to recognize that we are going to make mistakes. "Know that apologies make a difference," says Dortch. "Having the strength to say I'm sorry to your child even into adulthood makes a huge difference."

"I do think it's essential that parents acknowledge that they can't do it all," says Dr. Fradin. Just being aware that your other children may need support and alone time is important. Holl says parents even having the thoughts and feelings that you need to divide your time better is a step in the right direction.

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