5 minute read
We work with children, adolescents, and adults with chronic conditions: mental illness, medical conditions, intellectual or developmental disabilities. We do the very best we can to treat the patient, but what about their siblings? What about them?
The first memory Nathan has is being in the hospital. He says, “I pretty well grew up in the hospital.” He wasn’t the patient; Nathan’s twin brother, Nick, was. Nathan’s parents devoted most of their time and attention to Nick, who had mucopolysaccharidoses, type 2. Nathan was essentially ignored.
Alice was 10 when her older brother, Jack, was jailed for drug abuse, the first of many brushes with the law. Jack was diagnosed with bipolar and oppositional personality disorders, and the parents spent much of their time and attention on his mental health treatment and legal challenges. Neither parent saw Alice in her lead role in the school play.
When Monica was six, she always remembers being told by others to be a good girl because her parents have enough challenges dealing with her brother, Mike, with Autism. As Mike got older, his aggression increased, and Monica often became a target. She was hit, and frequently her treasured possessions were destroyed. As a senior in high school, she labored all night, perfecting an essay that would assure her “A” grade in English. The paper was never turned in; Mike got to it the morning it was due. Monica’s parents never knew; Monica didn’t tell them because they had “enough challenges.” She got a “B” and a lecture from her parents that she should have tried harder.
Glass children is a recent designation for children like Nick, Alice, and Monica. They aren’t called that because of their fragility; rather, because their parents look right through their needs to the demands of their siblings. According to the Sibling Leadership Network, an organization supporting siblings, “Glass children are healthy children who have brothers or sisters with special needs. They are typically emotionally neglected, experience severe pressure to be problem-free and perfect, take on parental responsibilities within the family at a young age, and have an overwhelming need to make others happy. All this while receiving little nurturing and support in their development years.”
As clinicians, what can we do? As we gather historical information from patients, ask if they have a sibling with a chronic condition. If so, and the condition placed high demands on the parents, there is a high probability you may be seeing a glass child. They aren’t fragile, so don’t be afraid to address the issue with them. Ask how much of their parent’s time was spent caring for the sibling. Ascertain the expectations imposed on them and the source. Many expectations may have been self-imposed. Just because your patient has a sibling with a chronic condition doesn’t mean they are a glass child, nor does it mean their presenting issue is related, but it might be.
Our best guide is to learn from glass children. Watch this TED talk by Alicia telling her story of growing up as a glass child, this Orange Socks interview of Nathan, and this TED Youth talk by Jamie.
If you work with parents of a glass child, encourage the following: not take for granted the emotional health of the unaffected child; consider that their child may experience adjustment issues without adult coping mechanisms; be skeptical if the child says they “are fine,” that may not be true; seek to understand the child’s emotions often and repeatedly; express unconditional love for the child frequently; find ways to spend time with the child without the other child present; read books and have conversations on what it means to be a sibling of a child with special needs; come up with their own solutions to the problem.
Fortunately, some resources can be helpful to glass children. For example: For young children, an excellent resource is sibshops. Parents can enroll their children in a nearby sibshop. If there isn’t one in the area, therapists should consider starting one. For adolescent siblings, parents should consider involving them in the Siblings with a Mission organization. For adult siblings, clinicians should refer them to national support groups like the Sibling Leadership Network or the Facebook group SibNet.
Are glass children fated to have emotional or related medical issues? No, and many siblings of high-need children credit their brother or sister with their life choices and carriers. But many are at risk and clinicians should be aware that their unique life experiences could be a possible antecedent to their presenting problem.
Ann Maloney says
steve berg says
interesting to me after living for over 80 years, to identify with this syndrome. My older brother had asthma and was very much coddled by my parents and still, at this late date, I can recall standing in my crib and told to go to sleep because my brother was sick and needed attention. I think, on hindsight, that he became skilled in garnering attention, even as an adult, where as I became accustomed to being ignored, even as an adult. Personally I call these underlying personality faults “HAUNTS” as they are forever lurking in the background and dictating how to respond.
I’ve had asthma my whole life but I was a glass child, my brother, older than me, had cerebral palsy so needed a lot of attention, and then my sister developed mental health problems and also needed a lot of attention, my asthma, although serious, wasn’t as serious. I remember I was on an inhaler, my mum would put a capsule in it and twist before giving it to me, I didn’t have enough lung capacity, nor did I know what I was meant to do, to use it properly, but I didn’t tell her, and she didn’t notice. I don’t remember a lot of attention when I was breathless, I doubt I told them most of the time. My siblings were more important I loved my parents but I internalised a lot which over the last few years has started to come out, not that I ever shared any of it with my mum. I wouldn’t have hurt her like that.
I came across this last night whilst watching a tv program it hit me like a brick that I have been a parent like this to my son who now is an adult. I used to say to him you are my little piece of normal, he was quiet, polite never Poorly never gave me any issues. Until he reached 17 and got into trouble with police, one day years later we were clearing out the loft and he threw down a tea towel he had made at school and said do you may want to keep this if you can remember anything about my childhood, it tore my heart out and again I said but your sister was sick I had no choice. After seeing this show last night I get it I really get it but how do I fix it 30 years later with my adult son.
Hi Linda. I’m a glass adult now I guess you could say. My younger brother has autism.
I don’t know all the answers. I’m here because I’m finding that this hit me hard when I learned it was a real thing. I don’t know you or your son, but I know that acknowledgment of your mistakes is the first step to healing. As a child, it’s hard seeing your sibling grow up with the parent you wanted and needed. But communication is key. If I could get anything from my mother- which likely I won’t- it would be a bear hug. Some- probably a lot of tears, and an apology to start. Logically, we know our siblings need more care than us. But emotionally, it’s a huge toll. I hope you and your son can grow close again.
I’m doing my dissertation on glass children and would love to speak with anyone who might be willing to provide some insight! I’ve never used this site before but if you’re willing to chat with me, please email me email@example.com
Not only am I a glass child but I was also isolated due to my parents inability to stay anyplace for longer than 2 years. They were very sensitive and if you ever said something to them that made them feel bad then they ran away, moved or seethed in anger. I learned very quickly not to upset the boat at home or attempt to make lasting friendships.
Many times I put myself in dangerous positions, unhealthy relationships or hid from life. I was raped as a teen, in response my mother stayed on the same bowling team as my rapists mother. My sibling was physically assaulted at school and they brought it to court and supported him the entire way.
I am in my 50s and just today brought up a few things to my parents. As expected they lost their minds and booked a flight back home (3 days in to a 3 week Christmas vacation). It will be months, if not years, before they talk to me again.
In the meantime I will have to field calls from my extended family telling me how wrong I am because they have had it so hard and are such good people and they (parents and sibling) do not deserve to be treated poorly by me. It will be the first time in years that the extended family will have contacted me…only doing so now to berate me for being ungrateful.
My sibling is 48 years old and my family members still call him “Poor little Morgan”, send gifts, etc. but I can’t recall the last time I even got a phone call or a Christmas card from any of them. Even when my baby died no one acknowledged her but my sibling had the flu and everyone was extremely worried. I am invisible, isolated and utterly bone weary tired from it all.
Hi Daisy. My name is Karen and I just turned 62 a few days ago. My brother was hit by a car when he was 8. I have been pretty much invisible to my family since then. He is 60 now and everyone in the extended family is always concerned about him and his well-being and, again, I’m invisible. I was left with whoever would take me when he was in the hospital, and about 18 months ago, I asked my father why they didn’t have his family take care of me when they were at the hospital for 6 days a week for months. He just looked at me confused and said, “I don’t know.” Like I was annoying him by asking. My mother is so confused now that she no longer knows who we are and dad passed a year ago. So…I am designated to take care of my brother…again! Now, my Aunt and Uncle talk to me regularly about mom and “Pete” but NEVER ask how I’m doing, and they send him and mom gifts for birthdays and holidays but don’t even other to ask me, again, if I need anything. My brother has no one else but me. I feel resentful but am doing the best I can. I just feel so alone….so I totally understand and feel you!!
Lynne Walters says
This term epitomises my childhood. My daughter told me I was a glass child while I was telling her about a hospital stay when I was 10, my mother never visited me.
My elder sister was always in trouble at school and then developed chrones disease. I became completely invisible at the age of 11. One night my parents didn’t come home as they stayed at the hospital, I spent the night with my dog, I was 12.
It has affected me as an adult in that I genuinely find it hard to believe that people actually want me around!
I had a younger sibling who was constantly acting out at school since the 4th grade. In high school he barely graduated and his attendance was poor. My parents never cared how I excelled in school or that I had severe anxiety. They were always worried about my sibling.
I am a glass child, I can’t believe it. My younger siblings all have serious disabilities. I worry about them all but realise now that me being brushed aside may be why I am how I am. Complete introvert with no confidence.