Family portraits in America have transformed significantly from a stiff, formal black-and-white image to colorful digital images capturing candid, joyous and sometimes chaotic moments in life.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines family as “two or more people related by birth, marriage or adoption residing in the same housing unit,” but the concept of family is much more complex. Families give children a sense of purpose, identity and belonging.
Family structure is complex. There are many types of family structures currently identified in society, but many of these categories overlap.
* Nuclear Family: considered a traditional type of two-parent structure with children. Approximately 70 percent of U.S. children live in a nuclear family unit. There are many variations in the nuclear family including adoption, unwed partners and same-sex marriages and partnerships.
* Single-parent family: one parent raising one or more kids alone.
* Extended family: two or more adults, either related by blood or marriage. This may include grandparents, cousins or adult children living in the home.
* Stepfamily or blended family: two partners living together with kids from previous marriages or relationships.
* Grandparents: Grandparents for a variety of reasons are raising 1 in 14 children in the U.S.
Different family structures present different challenges. Single-parent families tend to be relationally close and good at working together to solve problems but can face hardships such as coping with the loss of a parent through death or divorce, adjusting to new circumstances, time and financial constraints, parental fatigue and trying to fill the gap of an absent parent.
Extended families have a proverbial village at their fingertips, which can help with childcare and positive support but can also provide more opportunity for conflict, role confusion and power struggles. Blended families can bring the positive energy of new beginnings but also present challenges in dealing with ex-partners, creating new traditions, forging new sibling relationships and getting used to a new way of normal. Same-sex families can experience discrimination, social exclusion and legal challenges related to health and insurance benefits.
The quality of interpersonal relationships in the family is more important than the family structure.
Although families are structured very differently, research shows there are universal characteristics that can be cultivated in any family to promote a healthy environment in which kids can thrive.
Healthy families engage in respectful and meaningful conversation. Family members should be able to share feelings, thoughts, fears and experiences freely, without fear of rejection. The goal should be to problem-solve by talking through a situation in a positive, receptive manner.
Healthy families keep family as a top priority and consider impact on the family as a unit when making important decisions. Kids fare well emotionally when they know they can count on their family for encouragement and support. Divorced parents can reinforce commitment to their kids by fostering a healthy co-parenting relationship with the former spouse.
* Quality Time
Healthy families spend time participating in enjoyable activities together. Family traditions, playing games and weekend outings are great ways to connect as a family. It could be something as complicated as a Thanksgiving dinner planned for a year on Pinterest or something as simple as pizza Fridays. The main goal of spending time together is to share thoughts, feelings and identities.
Research shows that families who eat dinner together three or more times per week have kids who are more likely to have better relationships with their parents, perform better academically and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, including drugs and alcohol.
Healthy families respect the individuality of each member. Each child has a distinct personality, qualities and interests. Kids are free to pursue their own interests without pressure of expectations from parents. Each stage of life with children is exciting with new transitions, and they need the freedom to grow and change during these stages, even during the teen years.
Healthy families have a religious or spiritual connection that correlates with an overall sense of family well-being. Spiritual beliefs and practices help families cope, be resilient and find meaning in common moral principles to which the family is committed.
* Coping Skills
Healthy families come together in times of crisis, using coping skills such as encouraging healthy expression of emotion, appropriate use of humor, seeking expert advice and accepting support from external places. Strong families are connected to their communities. Maintaining a supportive network of friends, relatives or neighbors is essential in times of family stress and crisis.
By emphasizing and appreciating the uniqueness of your family structure, you can help boost your child’s confidence and self-worth, making it easier to face the challenges ahead. Likewise, you should teach your children to honor and value the uniqueness of other families, especially those with different family structures.
Jessica L. Peck, DNP, RN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas and has been practicing in pediatrics for more than 20 years. She is currently the secretary of NAPNAP.