Families come in all forms, and no matter how many parents and children are in each family each member has their place within their unit.
We know that each family has their own ways of functioning, but there are some ways of defining certain members of the family which we will all be familiar with - glass child, middle child and oldest child. The phrase 'glass child syndrome' is now trending on TikTok as people seek to explain exactly what this is and how it has impacted the lives of themselves and their families. Videos about the topic have over 52 million views on the platform.
But, just what are the definitions of each of these roles and how can they impact those who hold them? Here’s everything you need to know, including a psychotherapist's view.
What is a glass child and what is glass child syndrome?
Glass children are siblings of a person who has a disability. The word glass is chosen to describe them because people tend to see right through them and focus only on the person with the disability. In addition, this child may appear to be strong, but in reality they may not be at all and people should be aware that they could be fragile and special care and attention should be paid to them.
According to a 2022 journal article on the subject, siblings of disabled or chronically ill children are often hidden family members and their needs for support might not be met. Glass child syndrome isn't an official medical condition, rather it is a term used to describe the experience of children with poorly siblnsiblingss, and how this shapes their personality.
What are the traits of a glass child?
Glass children can often take on adult-like responsibilities within their families from an early age as they attempt to support their parents and their sibling. As a result, they can grow up, and become more mature, much quicker than their peers. Glass children can often feel like their physical and mental needs are overlooked as their parents and carers must spend a disproportionate amount of time looking after their sibling. Current research, however, is limited in its understanding of the glass child’s lived experiences.
What does a psychotherapist say about glass child syndrome?
Psychotherapist Debbie Missud, who said she was a glass child herself because her sibling suffered with mental health issues, said not every child who has a chronically ill sibling is a glass child - but they can become overly independent.
She said: "Well siblings feel invisible to others, have a hard time expressing their emotions and feel the overwhelming pressure to be problem free or perfect. They are often hyper-independent and learn to take care of themselves from an early age. They can feel like an inconvenience when they talk about their needs and also feel guilty about their accomplishments as their siblings wouldn't be able to accomplish the same things."
Missud advised glass children to speak to their parents about their feelings if they can, set clear boundaries with them and also talk to a counsellor if they think this will help them. The 26-year-old is speaking from experience. She said that her brother took up a disproportionate amount of her parents' time because he had conditions such as bipolar and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When she began suffering from anxiety aged 22 she went to therapy and it was only then she spoke about her glass child syndrome.
The US-based psychotherapist said parents are doing their best, and glass children shouldn't be too hard on them, but added that parents do need to ensure they make quality time for their well child too. She said: "If you are somebody who is a glass child, your parents didn't intentionally screw up [but] parents should start to acknowledgeart acknowledge this dynamic exists in childhood."
Glass child syndrome starts early in childhood but the well child isn't usually aware of the impacts, according to Missud. She said: "I am one of those people who didn't realise until I was an adult. I had anxiety in college so I started to see a therapist. I also had consuming ruminations; my mind was busy all the time, and I had so much tension I developed tension migraines".
Another way that her glass child syndrome affected Missud was struggling to set boundaries. She added: "I struggled with perfectionism. I realised it's okay to not make everybody happy with me all of the time". Now, she says she has been able to set "positive" boundaries and speak about her problems to her parents.
What is middle child syndrome?
Middle child syndrome is the belief that, where there are three children or more in a family, middle children are excluded, ignored, or even neglected because of their birth order. According to Yorkshire-based children’s bed specialist Room To Grow, the middle child can often feel like they have no defined role within the family. This is because the older child gets all of the firsts while the middle child is treated as the baby of the family, and each of these children receive attention for these reasons - but the middle child is often trying to live up to one or both of their siblings.
Middle children can be resentful of their older and younger siblings, but they can also become a good mediator or negotiator within the family because they have developed good social skills.
It could, however, be an advantage to be a middle child because they have both an older and younger sibling, and benefits from both of these positions. They have an older sibling to look up to and learn from. For example, they may teach them how to tie their shoes. The younger sibling, on the other hand, idolises them and by helping to take care of them they are learning to be a nurturer.
What are the traits of the youngest child?
Youngest children tend to have more freedoms than their older siblings because by the time they are born their parents have settled in to their roles as mums and dads. As a result of this, they tend to be more independent. They may also, as previously mentioned, be treated like the baby of a family, and that could mean they are accused of being demanding or spoiled. They may also sometimes feel like they are treated younger than they are, and can struggle to feel like they are being taken seriously.
Youngest children are also often very loving because they have had a lot of people show them affection, and in turn they have always had a lot of people to show affection to. A 2015 YouGov poll found that younger siblings are more likely to say they are more funny, more easy going and more relaxed.