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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

What is a 'glass child'?

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

‘Glass Children’: the overlooked child, a sibling of a child who needs additional support.


In today's Metro I've contributed to an article about a 'glass child' - who they are, what their childhood and adulthood might be like, along with some tips for parenting a 'glass child'.


What is a ‘glass child’?

I’m not sure where I first heard the term ‘glass child’. There’s a great TedTalk online introducing the topic (click here to view). As far as I’m aware, it’s not a clinical term. Rather, it’s a colloquial expression for someone who grew up with a sibling who needed more of their parents’ attention. It could be a sibling with a disability, an illness, special educational needs, challenging behaviour, the list goes on. These circumstances are all vastly different from each other. What they have in common is the potential for a sibling to become overlooked, to receive less time and attention, and to adapt accordingly.


Remember that song, ‘Mr Cellophane’ from the musical Chicago? It ends, ‘You can look right through me, Walk right by me, and Never even know I’m there’. That reflects some of the experience of a ‘glass child’.


What’s childhood like for a ‘glass child’?

We internalise words, messages, and values during our childhood years. The ‘glass child’ will notice that their sibling needs support and attention and will adapt accordingly. They will often focus on being good, staying quiet and behaving well, and this behaviour will often elicit praise. However, this model behaviour can mask deeper feelings. There could be anger, resentment, jealousy, or sadness towards the other sibling, which can lead to feelings of guilt. Or they might feel guilty about simply being the sibling that doesn’t have additional needs. And when the ‘glass child’ understands that they receive less support and attention than their sibling, they might come to believe that they don’t deserve to have support and attention.


All of this could be bottled up inside a growing child and masked by their good behaviour. As the ‘glass child’ enters their teenage years, their role in the family continues to leave its mark. Some become entrenched in their role as the quiet caregiver and protector. They get used to the idea that they are in the background, undeserving of attention, and find it difficult to connect with their needs. They might become perfectionists, as they learnt when they were growing up that ‘being good’ and behaving well would elicit praise. Others might go the other way, voicing their anger or frustration in acts of teenage rebellion.


If you identify as a ‘glass child’, how can you handle the impact of this in adult life?

  • Develop your understanding of how you feel. This might sound simple, but if you’ve spent time bottling up your feelings, it can be difficult. See if you can tune in to how you feel in different situations. What emotions come up for you, where do you feel them in your body. Can you develop coping mechanisms to help when things feel difficult?

  • Understand what you need. As a ‘glass child’ you might have suppressed your own feelings, and this can make it difficult to understand what you need – or even to understand that you deserve to have needs.

  • Consider your relationship patterns. Do you have a default role – perhaps as the protector, the rescuer, or the caregiver? If so, think about whether this makes you happy, and what boundaries you have in place with other people.

  • Reflect on your relationship with your family from an adult perspective. As a child it can be difficult to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. As an adult you may have a more nuanced understanding of the challenges that your parents and siblings may have faced. This might help you to understand and accept how things were when you were growing up.


If you’re a parent of a ‘glass child’, how can you support them?

  • Offer them your attention. If your situation allows, give them opportunities to spend time with you, doing something that they love, independently of their sibling.

  • Remember that they are still a child. ‘Glass children’ often seem mature beyond their years. But remember that this can simply be their way of adapting and coping.

  • Acknowledge how they feel. Particularly if there are feelings that might seem unattractive or unpleasant. We can all feel lots of different things at the same time, but it can be more difficult to express and voice certain feelings. Anger, jealousy, frustration, guilt. They all have a place, and if we don’t express them, they can sit within us and simmer.

  • Be kind to yourself. Parenting is tough, and it’s not easy balancing the needs of the different members of your family.

Keen to explore more?

I love working with people to help them to understand themselves. In counselling we build a relationship where we can look at what might be causing your anxiety and how you can work to overcome it, so that you can feel more comfortable and confident in everyday life. If you’d like to learn more, click here to contact me or click here to book a free 30-minute introductory chat.


Click here to read the original article in Metro.




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