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When the other children shatter: The glass effect of reactive attachment disorder on siblings

Updated: Mar 2



As parents, we embark upon the experience with hope and wonder—whether our children enter our lives biologically, through adoption or other circumstances. We never anticipate that the journey will devastate us or those we love.


But when reactive attachment disorder—the result of childhood trauma—enters the home, tragedy can follow. Siblings of children with the disorder often feel the brunt of the chaos, silently.

We call them glass children.

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Sand turns to glass when heated to 3090°. An incredible 3090 degrees. The sand is so stressed that it morphs into something different and fragile, yet beautiful.


Parent and author Avivah Werner defines it best. “Glass children are children who are growing up in a home with a sibling who takes up a disproportionate amount of parental energy,” Werner says. “This can be a child with an obvious physical or emotional disability. It can be a child with an addiction, a serious illness, or significant behavioral issues.”


Unfortunately, families of children with reactive attachment disorder have more than their fair share of glass children.


Though certainly not their fault, parents often look right through their other children—those without reactive attachment disorder—like glass. As they put out behavioral, emotional, physical and sometimes literal fires from their children with reactive attachment disorder, parents overlook their other children’s needs.


Usually, the knowledge of glass children comes as they age, mature and become older teens or young adults. In an effort to “protect” their parents, these siblings stay tragically quiet as younger children. They do so to prevent additional stress for their parents.


The silence of glass children can lead to feelings of hopelessness, isolation, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.


To learn of this aftermath years later is tragic as a parent. Just as we have survived the most challenging years with our children with reactive attachment disorder, we often learn that our other children feel shattered. Broken glass.

This is a heavy weight to carry.

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My husband and I embarked upon adoption with the purest of intent. I had thought, simply, that we would share our home, family and love with another child who so desperately needed it. Though we anticipated challenges, we had no idea that the experience would unravel our family.


Even in the midst of absolute despair, I wish someone had told me to really see my other children. To not just look through them and think how wonderful they are but to stop and observe them. To actually tend to these kids who seemed to need nothing when, in reality, they needed so very much.


When we are lucky enough to have a glass child share what is on the inside, we will see cracks. Like a stained-glass window, they are fragile. But what a most beautiful sight to behold.


Though it has been incredibly difficult, I’ve forgiven myself for not seeing my kids when they needed me most. I had never heard of glass children. I, too, was suffering in ways most did not see. Through my own journey to survive the effects of reactive attachment disorder, I did not see the damage occurring to my other children.


While I have let go of my guilt, I still reflect. I envision the ways I could have protected my children from the pain they endured years ago.

Though I can’t go back in time for my own children, it is why I am a RAD Advocate—so that others may experience the beauty of adoption, even with reactive attachment disorder, without the shattered glass.


Let us guide you through the toughest times as a parent. Become a RAD Advocates member.