Six family types and their unique dynamics

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated January 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Different family types are not only common but also much more accepted than they were in the past. It's not uncommon to be raised by a single mother or be part of a mixed family. Each family type (there are six main ones that people agree on) has a unique family dynamic. 

Learning about your family type and thinking about how it affects your family dynamic can help bring you clarity about your family challenges or give you insight into the process of going through a big shift in your family structure. Looking at family type and dynamics can also give you a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses that your family is likely working with. 

Some people may also choose to begin parenting classes or online therapy to deepen their understanding of family dynamics.

Six different family types and their unique family dynamics

Though the exact definition of a family depends largely on individual interpretations and cultural norms, there are some sources that define at least six unique family types that follow their own set of dynamics and structures.

1. Nuclear family

Nuclear families, also known as elementary or traditional families, consist of two parents (usually married or common law) and their children. Nuclear families typically have one or more children; they may be biological or adopted, but the main idea is that the parents are raising their kids together in the family home.

Though nuclear families seem to be on the decline, a 2016 U.S. Census study shows that 69% of children still live in nuclear families. This is the most commonly depicted and explored family type.

Nuclear families can be strong and successful, with both parents being great examples for their kids. These kids often have many advantages over other families with less, which can help them get ahead in life. However, like any family, nuclear families have their struggles to face. For example, if parents shut out grandparents and other extended family, chances are their support system will not be strong and getting through hard times can be challenging.

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Strengths of nuclear families

  • Financially stable, both parents usually work now
  • Children raised in a stable parenting situation
  • Consistency
  • Emphasis on health and education
  • Focus on communication

Weaknesses of nuclear families

  • Exclusion of extended family can lead to isolation and stress
  • Can struggle with conflict resolution
  • Nuclear families can become too child-focused, resulting in self-centered children and families neglecting other important things

2. Single parent

Single-parent families consist of one parent with one or more kids. In these cases, the parent either never married, widowed, or divorced. A paper by Ellwood, D.T., and Jencks, C. (2004) talks about how single-parent families have been on the rise since the 1960s when divorce rates started going up (and so did births happening out of wedlock). They suggest that these changes could be due to many different factors, from leaving behind outdated gender roles to feeling comfortable being independent and achieving the goal of raising a child, regardless of the presence of a spouse or not.

Someone who is single parenting and raising kids alone is not that uncommon anymore, and like any other family type, single-parent homes have their pros and cons. Being a single parent raising kids can be hard. It can also be hard being a kid when your parents are split up or if you grew up only knowing one parent. In this situation, families need to make the best of what they have and rely on each other for love and support. 

Strengths of single-parent families

  • Family can become very close
  • Learn to household duties
  • Children and parents can become very resilient

Weaknesses of single-parent families

  • Families may have difficulty getting by on one income
  • It can be difficult for single parents to work full-time and still afford quality childcare

Getty/MoMo Productions

3. Extended family

While most people in the U.S. would identify nuclear families as being the "traditional" family type, in different cultures, extended families are much more common and have been around for hundreds of years. Extended families are families with two or more adults who are related through blood or marriage, usually along with children. This often includes aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives living under the same roof.

Typically, extended families live together for social support and to achieve common goals. For example, parents may live with their children and their children's grandparents. This gives the family the ability to provide care for their elderly, and in turn, the grandparents may be able to help with childcare while the parents are at work.

In North America, extended families living together isn't that common, but it does happen occasionally. What's nice about extended families is how close they can be and how they give each other a lot of support. That doesn't mean that so much family living together is always easy, though. There can be differences in opinion in extended families, and some people might live this way because they are obligated, not because they want to.

Strengths of extended families

  • Things like respect and care for the elderly are important
  • More family around to help with chores, child care, in case of emergencies, etc.
  • Social support

Weaknesses of extended families

  • Financial issues can occur if parents are supporting several other adults and children without any extra income
  • Lack of secludedness depending on the living environment

4. Childless family

Childless families are families with two partners who cannot have or don't want kids. In the world of family types and dynamics, these families are often forgotten or left out (even though you can still have a family without children). In the past, growing up, getting married, and having children was the norm, but in today's world, more people are choosing to postpone having children or deciding not to have any.

These unique families include working couples who may have pets or enjoy taking on other people's kids (like nieces and nephews) for the day occasionally rather than having their own. They could also be adventurous couples who don't feel like kids would be a good fit for their lifestyle. These relationships can be between wife and husband, husband and husband, wife and wife, or partner and partner.

The decision of whether to have kids is a difficult and highly personal one. Having kids isn't for everyone, and some families do great without them. Still, it's important to remember that some childless families are not childless because they want to be. Be kind before you assume about someone's family unit, as a number of people may be in a childless family due to infertility, or have sensitivity regarding the topic of children in general.

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Strengths of childless families

  • Typically have more disposable income
  • No dependents to take care of
  • Have more freedom to travel, go on adventures, pursue different careers or education
  • Couples get to spend more time together

Weaknesses of childless families

  • Couples can feel isolated or left out when all their friends/family start having kids

  • If you like kids, you can feel like something is missing

  • Infertility can force a family to be childless, which can be hard for couples

5. Stepfamily

A stepfamily is when two separate families merge into one. This can go several different ways, like two divorced parents with one or more children blending families, or one divorced parent with kids marrying someone who has never been married and has no kids.

Like single-parent families, step-families have become more common over the years. Like all these different family types, stepfamilies also have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that they need to deal with.

Going from a nuclear or single-parent family to a stepfamily can be a tough transition. It can be hard letting new people into your family dynamic, especially welcoming in a whole other family. Over time though, some children will come to accept their stepparents and step-siblings as part of the family and form strong bonds. This often also requires co-parenting of adoptive kids and can increase the number of people each partner has to look after or care for in the family unit. 

Co-parenting is somewhat different from parallel parenting. Even if both procedures allow both parents to be in charge of custody and parental obligations, co-parenting entails cooperation, plenty of communication, and a collaborative approach to parenting, compared to parallel parenting wherein there's limited direct contact with each other. Step-grand-parents might also be involved in this dynamic, as there are many variations and a wide spread of how far a stepfamily can go.

Strengths of stepfamilies

  • Children get the benefit of having two parents around
  • Children and their new siblings or step-parents can form strong bonds
  • The benefit of having two incomes compared to single-parent families

Weaknesses of stepfamilies

  • Adjustment can be difficult for parents and children
  • Parents can run into problems trying to discipline each other's kids
  • May lack discipline or be inconsistent

6. Grandparent family

The final family type is the grandparent family. A grandparent family is when one or more grandparent is raising their grandchild or grandchildren. While uncommon, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, grandparent-headed families are on the rise. They that, "Census study indicate that in the United States approximately 2.4 million grandparents are raising 4.5 million children."

This situation happens when the parents aren't around to take care of their kids or are incapable of properly taking care of their kids. For example, the parents might be incarcerated, too young to provide, may have a substance abuse disorder, or possibly due to the parent’s death. Thankfully, in these situations, the grandparents step up and act as parents to their grandchildren. This family unit can happen regardless of being wealthy, poor, or middle-class. 

It can be hard for grandparents to raise their grandchildren. In most cases, they probably thought they were done raising kids and might not have the health and energy to do so. Still, when needed, many grandparents step up and do what's needed. 

Strengths of grandparent families

  • Grandparents and grandchildren form a close bond
  • Keeps children from ending up in foster homes or other situations

Weaknesses of grandparent families

  • Grandparents may not work or have full-time jobs, may struggle with income
  • Depending on their health, it may be difficult for them to keep up with young children or discipline them as they get older

Takeaway

Therapy (family or individual) can help those struggling with changes in family type/dynamics. Online counseling services like BetterHelp can provide an outlet for people who are going through a difficult time with their family. Whether you want to know more about the psychology behind family dynamics, about polygamous families, or just find a place to discuss what category you think your family fits into, online therapy is a great place to start.

Online therapy can be an especially good option for families for whom travel is difficult or who would rather meet in the comfort of their home to discuss their concerns and work together to improve their family dynamics. Research suggests that online therapy is just as effective as its in-person counterpart for a range of concerns and treatments, meaning that you don’t have to compromise on the quality of your care for its convenience.

Whether you are in a same-sex family, have interracial relationship history, a binuclear family, a multigenerational family unit, or have parents who are polyamorous, have a large family, or have a small one, each family is unique in its own way.

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