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Families Come in All Shapes and Sizes: Help Your Children Embrace Theirs

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt. Ph.D
How do you define family? 
This is the seemingly simple question that I ask college students in my adulthood and aging course when we begin to talk about family.  As they offer definitions, I jot down phrases on the board in the front of the room.  As we move along, students’ definitions become broader and more inclusive. 

In 2013, the reality is that there is not one model of "family."  In fact, there are not even two or three models of family to which we can turn in order to neatly and easily complete our list.  Children may be biological or adopted or fostered; raised by parents or grandparents; have no siblings or half siblings or step-siblings; have heterosexual or homosexual parents; have two parents who have remained married or up to four parents who represent blended families.

In fact, approximately 40% of children have divorced parents.  Two and a half million children experience the death of a parent before the age of 18.  About 1.8 million children in the U.S. are adopted.  The past four decades brought changing divorce and marriage rates, more women in the workforce, a longer life expectancy, more reproductive technologies, delayed marriage and childrearing, more alternative family patterns.  Frankly, there is no norm!

With great diversity in families comes a sense of liberation for some and great challenges for others.  And sometimes, both liberation and challenge for the same people.  As adults, we largely create the families that our children will experience.  Granted, circumstances beyond our control can influence the nature and structure of our families, but, as parents, we create a climate and context for their childhoods.
What are some of the ways that we can increase our children’s likelihood of positive outcomes because of (or in spite of) our family circumstances?
  • Embrace your family.  A family is what you make it.  No matter who the mom(s), dad(s), sons, daughters, grandparents, or other loved ones, it is important for children to identify with a family unit that is full of love and acceptance.  My son and I call ourselves a "team."  I am no doubt the mom and he is the child, but we recognize that the two of us have an important family identity and we often have to work to make things happen together.  We embrace that we are "good team."  For an 8year old, the team concept works well.
  • Celebrate uniqueness.  Adoptive families often celebrate birthdays as well as "adoption day" or "coming-home day."  Instead of hiding from what may be different from the majority, find ways to celebrate it.  Researchers have demonstrated that openness from as early an age or time as possible is a good thing—as long as it is done in a developmentally appropriate way.  If you avoid talking about certain things, kids will often assume that means it is bad.  So, talk about it…and celebrate it.
  • Communicate and support your child’s emotions.  I believe that communication is one of the best preventive medications we have.  Effective communication is a key to good relationships—it is true in marriages as well as in parent-child relationships.  Talk to your child and validate his or her emotions.  For instance, do talk about adoption.  I always say that adopted children are "double loved" because they have birth parents who loved them so much that they wanted to find them a special home and they have adoptive parents who waited a long time to have that special child that they could love.  Don’t be afraid to start the conversation or ask your child if they have any questions about their family or background. 
  • Be proactive with teachers about issues that are sensitive for your child.  Particularly if your child is in grade school, there may be family issues that you should share with your child’s teacher—divorce, marriage, new home, death in the family.  That way, the teacher can be educated about the subject and know how to handle it should it come up at school.  Depending on the school, the peers, the age, and how your family has dealt with various issues, it can be helpful to be proactive on your child’s behalf.  I can still remember first grade in the 1970s when we were making Father’s Day gifts and my teacher had no idea whatsoever to do when I said I didn’t have a dad to make it for.  Had she known, much little girl confusion could have been avoided!
  • Surround children with similar others.  Children as young as two and three years old tend to choose as friends those who are similar to them.  We tend to get into intimate relationships with similar others.  In love, opposites may attract, but research shows they are likely to eventually repel.  If your family situation is unique, try to find other families like yours so that your child does not feel like they are "the only one."  Young children want (and some even need) to fit in.  Help your child find her niche.  That doesn’t mean you only surround your child with "like" others.  Certainly not.  But expose your family to others that allow children to take comfort in seeing others like them.  Are you a grandmother raising your grandchild alone?  Find another grandparent-guardian with whom both you and your child can identify.
In 2013, we are naïve to think that families are made up of a mom, dad, and two children.  They can be, for sure.  But the majority of families are not constructed that way.  Embrace your family, celebrate your children, communicate together, keep a conversation going with your child’s teacher, and find others in similar situations as you and your children.  These can go a long way in helping children understand that family is whatever you make it.

What is your family structure?  Have you faced any difficulties with a less traditional family arrangement?  How did you (or how do you) handle them?  Do you have special family traditions that celebrate your family’s identity?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt
is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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PLCHAPPELL 7/27/2020
So true Report
REDROBIN47 1/12/2020
I consider many people to be family. We are all sisters and brothers in Christ. Report
Great info Report
great read Report
really a good article..learned something Report
Thank you. I appreciate how SparkPeople is becoming more inclusive. Report
@LLREED , it's a shame you feel you have to "put up" with views you don't agree with here, such as vegetarian diets, etc.
I am vegetarian and I find your comment rude and insensitive.
Maybe in the future if you see an article that isn't in line with your beliefs, then don't read it.

I joined SparkPeople with a goal of incorporating healthy living into my own family's structure. I am delighted to see how many other "different" families out there with similar goals. I guess that means we are not so different after all. Wonderful. Thanks for acknowledging the rainbow of possibilities out there! Report
It is a great pity you can embrace FAMILY types of all shapes and sizes but not FAMILY MEMBERS of all shapes and sizes. Report
Someone asked why this blog is on this particular site. Healthy families are part of healthy living. Social and emotional health are very much related to physical health--how many of us eat when we are stressed, depressed, upset, anxious...? If your family is under stress, the physical health of your family is likely to suffer as well. This set of blogs is geared toward healthy parenting and families, which help promote healthy lifestyles overall. Report
Great article! Report
Great article! I truly believe that kids really need (at least 1) parent(s) who are fully dedicated to showing them love and security. My kids have 3 "parents" right now...their biological Dad, my fiance, and me. My 6 year old son is very firm that my fiance "isn't his Daddy, it's his Shawn." I think it's great that he accepts the role of my fiance as it's own. My 8 year old daughter accepted my fiance immediately and has shown me that each of us has a very important role in the family unit.

It's also very comforting to hear them talk about their other friends that have the same type of family. I agree with trying to find like families as well as diverse family types.

Finally, the kids' Dad was adopted and he is very open with them about it. It really is no big deal to any of us...even though he looks completely different than his family. I feel very blessed to have such a unique family. My kids have confidence in being different and I couldn't be more proud of all of us! Report
Family is what you make it. MANY MANY people do not have blood family for a variety of reasons. In my case it is because my family was small to begin with and I did not have any brothers or sisters and everyone passed away quite young. It is amazing how people react to that when I say that, but I have feel that my associations that I consider to be family is far more unconditional loving than many people REAL blood family.

What is truly unfortunate is that many adults do not take into account children in non traditional families and put them in awkward situations when questioning them about who is their other parent or aunt or uncle because it not biological. Children are so much more understanding on their own. Report
Great information. Thanks. Report
Thank you so much for this article!!! Report
As a teacher, I agree that it is very helpful when parents confide sensitive issues that can help me protect children from awkward situations. Report
Yes, this. We are a post-divorce double family. My daughter is happy and well-adapted, with two homes, four parents and a step-brother. If me and my ex had stayed in our unhappy marriage, I doubt I would have as much to offer my daughter, and building stability would likely not be possible. Now it is. Sure, some kids are unlucky in the divorce of their parents, but for some the opposite is true, and creating shame around this would be really bad and not healthy for kids. So we celebrate it, and let our child know that we are happy in this, and that she has the love of family around her.

As an aside, I disagree with the comment that this kind of thing is not really relevant to the spark - mental health and family happiness are pillars of our daily life, and having them in order makes reaching our goals all that more realistic. Report
I'd lost 80 lbs over the span of about 3 years, but spent all of last year binge/stress-eating when I suddenly and unexpectedly became a stepmom to my boyfriend's daughter. I've gained about half back in less than a year. I worry about her and our new family all the time. It's lonely, scary, and stressful. It makes me tired, and the workouts I used to embrace daily, jumping right into as soon as I got home from work, are now on the backburner to naps. Trust me. Building a healthy, happy family structure is crucial to good health. I'm grateful for this article, and if you can do another one focusing on stepfamilies, especially under really rough circumstances, I personally would be grateful. Report
@ L.L. Reed - A solid, focused, loving family, no matter how it is constructed, lends itself to reducing unnecessary anxieties in the family members. In my case, being an adopted child was no big deal, since my parents told me about adoption from day one (besides, at five years old, I was aware of what was going on). One of the things that helped me accept adoption as no big deal was that my dad had been adopted. Since it was no big deal, I didn't have a problem when I had the opportunity to adopt my oldest son. Three generations of men who adopted and raised sons that had not a single piece of common DNA - three generations of men whose Dads were not their biological fathers. You don't even need to guess where our love for our Dads was directed.

Without having to substitute food, liquor or drugs to alleviate anxiety, the whole family benefits through better health.

I have been on Spark for more than six years (before the format changed to what it is today) and I helped found the team "Dealing with Depression" It is now the largest single team on Spark with nearly a million members.

I never met a member who was battling anorexia or bulimia who didn't have major family issues. On the other side I never met another overweight member who was happy with their family life. My family was dealing with my PTSD, Chronic Depression, anxiety, S.A.D., and agoraphobia and I put the complete blame for their being upset on my shoulders. That made me more depressed and I found myself in a vicious downwards spiral. Being an old fashioned, hard headed guy who believed depression could be defeated if you put your mind to it and only women had "nervous breakdowns", I hit bottom when I had nearly completed my plans for suicide. I was dysfunctional and made my entire family miserable and dysfunctional, also. I was lucky, my wife saw what was happening, put up with my screams in the night and my mental disappearance during the day. She made sure I got help, and through the care of a Psychiatrist and a Clinical Psychologist, I got back to sea level and could keep my nose above water. It's taken me nearly 8 years to be able to leave the house without having to deal with the agoraphobia, but some days it is as bad as it ever was.

During the entire time I have battled my family issues, I have gained #31. I make progress, then something comes up that plunges me back into hell. At least those visits are shorter now and I don't eat a gallon of ice cream to try and pull myself up.
For members of the DWD team, dysfunctionality was the norm.

The fact is that there are now many combinations of people that call themselves a family and give each other the support that was seen on "Ozzie and Harriet" or "The Donna Reed Show". Those stories were totally fiction at the time and they bear little reality to the "nuclear family" era we find ourselves in now.

It's because of these various family groups that we NEED to address these issues because they have such a huge impact on each member of a family.
I do believe that the points you said that are some good things for a family for are good.

I don't really think four parents and these combinations are genuine families.

I also think there there are reasons to have both a guy and woman in a family ( other than religion ). I do believe both sexes are equal and have many similarities , but aren't idenical.

Having said that, obviously many of us came from single parent families. I do think it is preferable to have two parents, but one good one, is superior, to have one or 2 messed up ones. Report
I see why some are having trouble with the mixed messages between pic and blog. Not only are all the kids 'healthy' weight, but none is handicapped, and there are only kids. A family, by the writer's own definition, can encompass generations--should do.
At the same time, the idea that our 'traditional' American family is 'biblical' is a bit limited, too. There are no 'normal' families in the Old Testament, and only one family unit in the New--and the model for family offered in the Torah or in the New Testament certainly doesn't march with our practices.
My point? family IS flexible, but does better without definition. Calling a mother/son family a 'team,' can work well--but what about the element of competition that invokes? Nope...better to call your group a family, love it, and leave it alone. Report
I don't like your idea of what a family is. Some would call it old fashioned but I call it Biblical. Report
In the '70s, my Pioneer Girls Club at church has a Father/Daughter breakfast. My father was an alcoholic who refused to attend. Because he would not come, I was not allowed to go either. Rip off! I'm glad times are changing. Report
I went to school at 3 and a half years old. The classes were mostly 40 in a class, mostly 5 year olds. Life was so different from now. I was born and raised in England during WW # 2 and loved school. I never knew my father I was told he was dead. At school many kids had deceased fathers so there were a number of us. When I was 5, I and another girl were talking about fathers and she told me my father was not dead your mother is DIVORCED. We were in the lunch room, I had no clue what it meant but she was not nice about this so I cried.
The headmaster took me over to eat at the teachers table and for a few days I was there. Even then my grandmother with whom I lived never mentioned divorce nor did my mother. My mother and older brother lived elsewhere since we were homeless. I saw them mostly on weekends, My brother is 4 years older than me so I asked him. He explained what he knew but it was our secret since it would upset Mother and Gran. That was the way it was.
I was 31 years old and living in the US and pregnant with our third son when my father appealed to the national newspapers. Headlines read "WHERE IS MY PATRICIA" It was a really hard time DH and I never knew he was looking for me. I never met him. I had no contact with him.
My Mother and Gran were wonderful to me.
I have always been Honest with my DH of almost 50 years of wonderfull happy marriage. HONEST with our son's and DIL's.
Life is good if you live it with honesty in my opinion.
The slogan and picture don't fit. Not a single kid is overweight or obese on that picture. Report
Michelle: great blog. I have a lesbian women who works for me who has a 14 year old daughter. She is very open in talking about her situation. She has made my team much more open in talking about the challenges we all have in our relationships and in our parenting. It has been refreshing. It creates a healthy emotional environment that is all part of a healthy life commitment. Even debating when you don't agree teaches amelioration which is a great thing to learn. It also teaches us that all viewpoints are equally valid which is another healthy emotional aspect to embrace.

On a personal note, I was pleasantly surprised when I read your bio. My youngest daughter is a sophomore at Moravian. I have 2 other college age daughters and I myself "have had a lot of college!" (also a PhD). All I can say is that I just love Moravian. It's a great liberal arts school that offers courses that make the kids think. My daughter, in her 1st semester, took a class that covered the topic of death & dying pretty extensively. It really made her contemplate the topic and helped her formulate her own views. This experience came on the heels of my own experience of having to make some tough decisions for my parents as the power of attorney. So I want to say thanks to you as one who makes the Moravian College experience such a great one. Report
Interesting. Report
I work for the PA Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network and thoroughly enjoyed this article. Excellent tips for whatever kind of "family' structure! My thought of why this article is appropriate for Sparkpeople is because one's emotional health is just as important as physical health! Report
Our youngest son came home with a request from the teacher for a baby picture. They were going to have a contest on a bulletin board - Guess whose baby picture this is? She had no idea that Ben was adopted at the age of 4 and there were no baby pictures of him. We ended up sending a picture of one of the first days we had him. The teacher made this picture request at the beginning of the school year as a way to get the kids to know each other, but I sure wish she had done this after a school conference. After she had gotten to know us. Report
Nice article, but what has this got to do with weight loss, fitness, or nutrition? Usually the featured blogs have something to do with our common goal of living a healthy lifestyle and I just don't get how this is relevant. I put up with a lot of views that I don't really agree with here on Spark, like vegetarian diets, etc., because it is a health issue. However, I fail to see how family diversity is relevant to the issue at hand. Please keep Spark on track and focused on healthy living. That's what the majority of us joined for. Report
sometimes family is just a good friendship that is thicker than blood.....we don't need to be related to be considered family. Report
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