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.