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Supporting and Nurturing a Glass Child with Parenting Tips and Insights

Nurturing emotionally intelligent families requires understanding each child's unique needs, temperament, and experiences. Among these varied experiences, parents sometimes make unintentional missteps due to their struggles and parenting challenges. All parents deserve compassion regardless of their situation because, let's face it, parenting is the most difficult job a person will ever have! 

A parenting term that has gained considerable attention is the concept of a "glass child." This label doesn't refer to being fragile but rather invisible. When siblings with special needs or chronic illnesses demand the lion's share of their parents' bandwidth, there is little left over for healthy brothers or sisters. Raising a little human demands a lot, but adding in special needs can make parenting overwhelming and exhausting.

Here are some EQ strategies for parents to support all their children with compassion, thoughtfulness, and respect.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A sad little girl looking out a window representing a glass child.Recognizing the Invisible: Understanding Glass Children

Coined and popularized by Alicia Maples in her TED Talk, Recognizing a Glass Child resonated with scores of parents who could relate. The term stuck.

A little history that you can skip if you want.

Maples grew up invisible, overshadowed by a brother with autism and another with a terminal illness so she knows firsthand what healthy children feel growing up in a home with siblings with special needs.

As you can imagine, she never enjoyed a "normal" childhood. Neither do hundreds of other children who find themselves overlooked—not because their parents don't love them or are not good people, but because their siblings require extraordinary care, energy, and attention. These parents need self-compassion in truckloads!

Glass Child Meaning: What Is a Glass Child? 

The term "glass child" may conjure an image of transparency and fragility, yet these children are anything but fragile. Their resilience is as commendable as it is heartbreaking.

Here are seven different conditions that warrant unprecedented care by parents and leave the siblings of special needs children bereft of needed attention.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): When a sibling has autism, they may require substantial parental attention and resources, potentially leading to the other child feeling overlooked.
  • Chronic Illness: Conditions such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, or severe asthma require ongoing medical care and parental involvement, which can divert attention away from the healthy sibling.
  • Mental Health Disorders: Siblings with significant mental health issues, such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, often need intensive parental support, impacting the attention given to other children.
  • Developmental Disabilities: Children with conditions like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy often require specialized care and support, which can overshadow the needs of their siblings.
  • Physical Disabilities: When a child has a significant physical disability, such as being wheelchair-bound or having a severe mobility impairment, the extra care and attention required can leave the healthy sibling feeling invisible.
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Siblings with ADHD may demand more time and energy from parents due to behavioral management and academic support needs, leading to potential neglect of the other child.
  • Substance Use Addictions: A sibling struggling with addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other substances can consume a large portion of parental focus and resources, leaving less available for the healthy sibling emotionally and financially

Understanding the meaning of a glass child begins with recognizing and acknowledging their unique challenges. These children navigate a complex emotional landscape, balancing their own needs and desires with the often overwhelming demands of their family situation. Dependent on parents for love and nurturing, their upbringing can be a lonely one.

It is a balancing act that requires immense strength, yet it is seldom recognized or supported.

Two families come to mind when my children were young. The first was a friend who had NINE children. Nine. I could not fathom how it was possible to have the wherewithal to parent and adequately support that many children. I saw firsthand, as a neighbor, the invisibility and loneliness of the siblings.

Another acquaintance had a Down syndrome child, and I watched as the child devoured so much time and energy. Her parents were heroes in my mind as they went to extraordinary lengths to give her the best care while also trying their best to be present for their healthy children. However, they collapsed at the end of each day like a flimsy cardboard box would under the weight of a highway steamroller.

So what can parents do when they are overwhelmed? Here are some strategies that require a parent to be intentional, but don't require a ton of time investment.
Dad hugging his daughter and showing empathy.

Parenting Strategies to Navigate the Tremendous Demands

Parenting strategy number one: Give empathy.

Empathy: a Simple, yet Powerful, Way for Parents to Nurture

Empathy and compassion are critical for parents who are faced with the insurmountable challenges of multiple children alongside a special needs child. Empathy is a salve that every parent needs. Different kinds and purposes of empathy can be applied, each helping all children or teens feel understood.

Parents of special needs children need it in gigantic proportions. Of course, empathy for glass children who compete for their needs to be met against a handicapped child is also of huge benefit.

To empathize means actively listening to their experiences without judgment and striving to understand their feelings and perspectives. Even carving fifteen minutes for one-on-one quality time is a game-changer.

A dedicated, regular, and voluntary holding (or cuddling) time that a younger child can depend on greatly reduces stress and feelings of isolation. For an older child, reliable talking time is a great remedy that deepens bonding while giving children an opportunity to express themselves one-on-one. These dedicated times can be used to empathize or to better understand a child's experience so that parents can course-correct to ensure the child feels loved.

Parents can convey empathy by initiating open conversations about feelings, experiences, and needs. This simple act airs tension that tends to build. Talking about experiences helps to regulate the profound feelings children may have. Get curious and ask open-ended questions, validating their feelings and affirming their self-worth despite parents who sometimes have little left to give.

Through empathy, parents can begin to dismantle the invisible barriers that keep glass children hidden in plain sight and give them emotional help to fill their empty tanks.

Related reading: "How to Talk to Someone with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"

Parenting strategy number one: Give empathy.

Balancing Attention: Strategies for Equal Emotional Support

Balancing attention among siblings is a formidable challenge in any family, but it is especially delicate and crucial in families with special needs children. As mentioned above, a strategy to ensure equal emotional support includes scheduling one-on-one time with each child. Only with individualized attention does a child truly relax into themselves and open up more honestly. 

As parents, we sometimes think in all-or-nothing terms that prevent us from saying or doing anything at all, especially when overwhelmed. It doesn't require a lot of time; it is a mindset and choice to be intentional. Fifteen minutes is gold. 

Find small, consistent ways to love each child with little gestures and snaps of time to help children know you care. These add up over time, even though they may seem small.

For instance, I'd cut lilacs in the Spring and put them in my daughter's room because she loved the scent. It required very little time on my part, but she still remembers it fondly as an adult.

Parenting strategy number two: Create a safe space for feelings.

Encouraging Expression of Feelings in a Safe Space

Creating a safe space for all children to express their feelings is crucial for their emotional well-being. Allow them to voice frustrations, fears, and desires without fear of reactions or reprisal. Just because you may be stressed or tired as a parent shouldn't invalidate the child's experience.

However, when a parent is exhausted, the tendency is to use feeling stuffers and minimize a child's experience and feelings.

Examples of Feeling Minimizers:

  • "Don't worry about that!"
  • "Everything will work out!"
  • "That's no big deal; you're blowing it out of proportion."
  • "You're being too emotional."
  • "Don't say that about your brother/sister!"
  • "Stop overthinking it!"

Why do parents minimize their child's feelings?

Does it make them a bad parent?

Nope, but it can be a worn-out parent. The truth: parents of special needs children simply run out of gas!

Parents unconsciously think that if they minimize the child's experience or diminish the intensity of their feelings, then they won't feel as bad about failing as parents or letting their child down. I know when I was too tired to engage my children in meaningful ways, I felt guilty. Learning to find activities when you're tired, like a family cuddle, meets your needs and your children's.

Yet, what is most critical is the acknowledgment of your child.

For example, "That sounds really tough. Could we talk about it in the morning when we're both rested?" The key is that you follow through—don't forget! You'll withdraw from your child's emotional bank account if you forget.

Encourage family members to share their feelings and experiences, both positive and negative. This openness can be facilitated formally through family meetings, family fun nights, individual check-ins, or by encouraging creative outlets like art and journaling. Providing a healthy platform for each child to express themselves and feel valued can alleviate so much family disconnection and heartache. 

Parents can also model healthy emotional expression by sharing their own feelings and coping strategies, demonstrating that it is okay not to be okay. It also fosters an environment where emotional vulnerability is seen as a natural part of life. This modeling helps to build acceptance and compassion for emotional struggles while encouraging children to seek support when needed.

And don't wait to ask for support from extended family or enlist mental health resources when needed.

Related reading: "How to Improve Emotional Intelligence in Everyday Life and Relationships."
Mom baking with her Down Syndrome daughter.

Parenting strategy number one: Foster interdependence.

Foster Interdependence in Family Members

Strengthening initiative and independence will assist all children in any family dynamic. Nurturing children's interests, talents, and aspirations while also engaging them to help with their handicapped siblings provides a sense of belonging and security.

Encourage extracurricular activities and opportunities for independence. This way, children receive support and validation from others outside the family. Your child may even experience relief from the isolation and loneliness that may be pervasive at home with preoccupied parents and a special needs sibling.

Boosting interdependence also requires acknowledging that glass children have their own unique paths to forge, completely separate from their siblings' all-consuming needs.

This conscious intention can involve meaningful conversations about future plans and balancing self-care and personal goals with family obligations and responsibilities. Just because a sibling has a handicap or is going through a very difficult time does not mean siblings need to (or should) sacrifice their own interests and happiness.

Parenting strategy number one: Teach coping strategies.

Build Resilience and Teach Coping Skills

Resilience is a critical skill for all children, but it is especially vital for glass children who often face unique stressors and pressures.

Parents can help build resilience by teaching coping skills, such as self-soothing and emotional regulation techniques. A parent with so many demands might not feel like they have the time or energy for instruction; however, micro-actions done consistently, no matter how small, will help.

Parents have many powerful opportunities for developing emotional intelligence in children through direct instruction, parental modeling, providing resources like books or stories on tape, and professional support.

Building resilience also involves helping children develop a strong sense of self. Encourage your children to pursue their passions and interests, and establish a supportive network of friends and mentors.

Related reading: "How Pets Improve Children's Mental Health, Emotional Regulation, and Development."

Parenting strategy number one: Teach coping strategies.

Build a Community for Support

Getting aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends to help and provide good role models will greatly assist your children to thrive even when you are taxed by the demands of special needs children.

Finding community support, such as support groups, online forums, and organizations dedicated to siblings of children with special needs, can be transformative for glass children and their families. Connecting with others who share similar experiences can provide much-needed understanding and validation. It's so easy to feel alone; this help can uplift you or perhaps give you a break for self-care.

Through these connections, glass children can also feel seen and heard, which may be elusive within the confines of their family.

Seeing the Glass Child Syndrome through the Lens of Emotional Intelligence

Parents can chart a hopeful future by setting realistic expectations, seeking out resources and support, and maintaining open lines of communication with their children. Using emotional intelligence (EQ) can be transformative in addressing and mitigating the impact on glass children.

1. Self-Awareness in Action: Self-aware parents recognize when they are overlooking one child in favor of another. Due to the constant deluge of demands, it is crucial for a parent to pay close attention to the tendency to ignore their more capable children. They must consciously heighten an intentional parenting style that compassionately meets their own needs and their children's.

2. Practicing Self-Regulation: Managing emotions helps parents respond constructively and lovingly, particularly when a healthy child seeks attention through negative behaviors. It is natural for an invisible child to act out when they feel invisible. Attention is a human need.

Compassionately redirecting the behavior is crucial for self-esteem and avoiding further hurt. Self-calm as necessary before handling misbehavior.

3. Empathy: By empathizing first with themselves, parents will turn guilt into greater effectiveness. Empathizing with their special needs children and their healthy children will soothe feelings, and parents can better understand what is most needed at any given moment. Empathy creates a safe place for feelings to be felt and understood, lessening the aloneness felt by glass children.

Closing Thoughts

Each child deserves to be seen, heard, and valued. Through mindful parenting and a focus on emotional intelligence strategies, you'll be better equipped to nurture resilient, confident, and emotionally healthy children.

By recognizing all of your children's strengths and struggles and doing your best to balance attention, you'll better ensure that all your children feel seen, heard, and valued.

And most of all, give compassion to yourself; parenting is a BIG job, and tremendously demanding. Breathe.

For more about parent coaching or for personalized support, reach out at support@heartmanity.com.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting

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