Diverse Family Structures

Norman L. Coad, D.Min

Families in America are diverse. However, three quarters (77%) of all families are either two biological parents or single parents with children under eighteen years of age. The biological parents make up 50% of all families. One quarter (27%) of all families are single parent families with children under eighteen years of age. Other family types with children under eighteen years of age include:

Cross Generational Families:

– Family member 65 or older—670,000.

– Families with one or both parents living in their grand parent’s home—2.5 million.

Adoptive/Foster Families:

– Approximately 120,000 children are adopted yearly.

– 6.3 children per 1,000 live in foster care homes.

Never-Married Families:

– 1.5 million unmarried couples have at least one child under fifteen years of age.

Blended Families:

– 20% of children live in two-parent households with divorced adults who remarried and formed blended families.

Grandparents As Parents:

– 1.3 million children live with their grandparents.

Same-Sex Parent Families:

– Two million children have parents who are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
(Note: Last updated 11/21/2015.)[1]

Whatever the type of family, there are certain characteristics that are the elements of a healthy family. A family systems model includes six elements of family life, these are: goals and values, roles and functions, status, rules, communication and coping strategies.

Goals are the aims and purposes for which a family exists. The primary goal is to provide a system whereby the individual in the family and the family as a whole is nurtured and sustained. The nurture is to provide those things that allow for growth and health. To “sustain” is to cause these to continue in existence.[2]

The family system must allow for change to occur in the family and the individual so that they are adapted adequately to the society as a whole and can survive. At the same time, change in the family and the individual must be managed so that change does not destabilize either.

Modeling Values

Modeling exhibits behavioral and moral principles that a family views as important. One way to do this is to instruct by The Five Ls. These are love, limits, learning environment, liberty and liability.[3] This is a clear, structured process.

Love is unconditional love no matter when there are no conditions to love. It is never “I love you if…” or “I will love you when….” It is “I always love you.”[4]

Limits are clearly defined and properly modeled. At the same time, they are reinforced by consistent and nurturing reinforcement. The limits modeled are: physical, emotional, mental, moral and spiritual.[5]

Learning Environment is maintained by parental authority. The parenting adult tells what is expected and explains why. He/she defines the consequences if not done, then shows how to do it. At this point parent and child share the task together. Then the parenting adult watches the person perform the task and evaluates the work done. Rewards are given. Positive rewards are given for appropriate responses, negative rewards are given for inappropriate responses. The small child is offered only one of two options. He/she should be offered and expected to act upon one appropriate, parent chosen and acceptable choice. Completing this successfully, a positive reward is promised. The parent should always follow through and give the positive reward. On the other hand, if the child makes the wrong choice as defined by the parent, the negative behavior is rewarded as promised. The process internalizes the discipline and makes the child responsible for the outcomes, positive or negative. They get what they earn. The parent always rewards appropriately and keeps his or her word.

Liberty is the freedom to succeed or fail within limits through making choices. If the child succeeds in the task he should be affirmed and praised. If he does not, he is not to be shamed or scolded. In the process of learning there is a learning curve. Failure and success are a natural part of the process.

Liability allows the child to take responsibility for the choices he/she makes. The consequences, both positive or negative, are the result of their own choices.[6]

Roles and functions are the part each family member plays and the particular task each family member is assigned.[7] Different family structures may necessitate these functions and tasks being done by others assigned to carry out. These functions are basic to meeting family needs and must be accomplished by someone. Biological parents functioning within the extended family fulfill the needs best and with less stress. Their perspective is to be given from the point of view of the biological parents’ parenting their children.

The role and function of the father is provider, protector, teacher and caregiver. The mother, by financial necessity or choice, is now provider in the vast majority of families. This diminishes the parental guidance that children need. The stress on the mother is extremely high. The role and function of the mother is provider, caregiver and teacher.

Parents work together to raise and nurture the children. Their objective is to parent the children so that they are socialized and can function well in society as adults financially and emotionally independently of parents.

The role and function of children is to grow up healthily, learn, accomplish their age appropriate tasks and move into functional adulthood.

Brothers and sisters are to learn to relate to each other within appropriate boundaries. They are also to learn how to share tasks to lessen self-centeredness. As the parents model to them appropriately, they will catch the expected adult behavior.

The Rules

The rules are the operating code, the habitual pattern of doing things. These are internalized as the way things are done. They direct behavior, interactions and problem solving. The operating code is not what is said, but what is done over and over, and thereby sets the rule. The rules inform and direct behavior. They make clear what behaviors are allowed and those that are not. The rules honor certain behaviors and disapprove of others. Family rules show how, and in what manner, family members relate to one another.

The rules model how families solve problems. Whatever model is used the children will internalize it. In some families the boss decides. In some families problems are ignored, fought over, and never resolved. In other families the problem solving involves negotiation. Some homes are marked by chaos; problems are seldom dealt with consistently or appropriately. Whatever model of problem solving used, it should be consistently applied, be effective and should nurture confidence and skill in the family members.


Communication makes possible healthy family functioning. It is sending, receiving and processing messages from and to one another. The sender of messages perceives a situation or event. It is then translated into a message. At this point a medium for transmitting the message is chosen and used. The receiver of the message receives the message sent to them, they then interpret it, if clarification is needed, they ask questions and process it until the message is correctly interpreted. Then the receiver makes their chosen response. It is appropriate to engage in the feedback process in most cases.

Coping strategies are the systems of response and action that have been worked out over time within the family. The purpose of which are to deal with challenges and crises that arise within the family functioning in society. These crises destabilize the family and the order and structure of the family are stressed and at times shut down. At these times reordering the structure of the family is required. The purpose, in the crisis, is not to restructure everything, but to change those aspects of the family that allow for changes to take place. The changes should allow and aid resolution of the problem. To facilitate the necessary change’s flexibility changes of roles, communication patterns and/or relationships are required.

Status in the family makes clear to all members of the relative worth and influence of each. Worth is the value placed on each family member and others. Worth is of two types: intrinsic value and functional value. Intrinsic value is the real value of a person (not dependent on performance of any kind). It is a person’s value as a state of being. It does not change, but is fixed, and positive. Intrinsic Value is not diminished or increased by what is done to a person, nor is their value decreased or increased by what they do. A person’s intrinsic value is not dependent on whether or not they are affirmed or others recognize it. They, we all, are precious and valuable because God made us that way. Whatever God does endures forever. Nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

Functional Value is the relative worth of the individual in relationship to others. It is made clear by their recognized authority, influence and/or by the usefulness and financial power. Functional Value has a great deal to do with what the person does and skill by which they fulfill their role. It also is dependent on the value placed on their role in the family or more broadly in society as a whole. In family, both intrinsic and functional value should be recognized and modeled. Both should reflect the core values of the family. These values should be adequately adapted to society so as to prepare the individual to function in it, but should also confront society to the point that family values are not set aside.

The purpose of co-occurring emphases is to bring forth self-confident and positive self-regard in all family members.

Influence is the relative power, authority or prestige of one family member to another. Family members and roles have different influence depending on the structure of the family. Influence is listed from the greatest to the lesser:

• Patriarchal: father, mother (male over female), children.

• Matriarchal: Mother, father (female over male), children.

• Egalitarian: Mother and father (joint, and equal), children.

• Child Centered: Children, then mother and father (children over parents).

All family types produce healthy, functional families except the child-centered family. This one is always dysfunctional.


1. http://www.HealthyChildren.org/English/FamilyLife/Family-dynamics/types-of-families/pages/Different-Types-of-Families-A-Portrait-Gallery.aspx
2. Ibid.
3. Author Unknown.
4. N.L. Coad. The Divided Soul Coadword Books, Burleson, TX. 2016, p 71.
5. http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-way-to-build-and-preserve-better-boundaries/.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.

Next Article: A Model of Healthy, Functioning Families and Individuals

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