The Nuclear Family & Its Place

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated June 15, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Melinda Santa, LCSW

Nuclear Family Sociology Definition, Nuclear Family Information, Nuclear Family Description

It's possible that you may have heard of the term "nuclear family" in the past. This term to describe a family is essentially something that sociologists and anthropologists have used to help define the traditional family in society. A typical family unit is often thought of as having a mother, a father, and however many children a family happens to have. This is the original and basic idea behind what a nuclear family is supposed to be.

Nuclear Family Definition

What is a nuclear family? Well, the traditional definition is pretty simple to understand. As mentioned above, a nuclear family is made up of two parents and their children. This is the most basic understanding of the nuclear family model. You would have a father, mother, and several children making up a traditional nuclear family.

Need Guidance On How To Navigate Family Dynamics?

People would think of the mother and father in the nuclear (or traditional) family model as being a married couple. This married couple would typically have two or more children and would form a close-knit family unit. The relationship of the people in this nuclear family is all about the dynamics between parents and their children. It is about those raising the children and the children that are being raised.

Things have changed drastically in the Western world since the first ideas about the nuclear family model. People don't adhere to the same social standards that they did when the nuclear (or traditional) family was the norm. Although many people do see the ideal nuclear family as being the most common, that isn't necessarily the case in all areas. Many family units in modern times are split into two, and some feature same-sex parents.

What does this all mean for the idea of the nuclear (or traditional) family? Does the nuclear family model even have a place in modern society? This is all very much open to debate. It partially depends on your feelings about the subject, but it is still worth digging into the facts about the nuclear family and how everything has changed in the world.

Homes After A Divorce

First, it is important to acknowledge that divorce has become quite commonplace in modern society. When the term “nuclear family” was first introduced into sociology circles, divorce was a fairly uncommon occurrence. People used to stay together no matter what, and this trend has completely changed over time. Although it is regrettable that many marriages end up in divorce, it is a good thing that people don't feel obligated to stay in loveless marriages.

Whereas in the past many women would stay in abusive marriages despite the dangers to their well-being, now they will simply leave and start a new life. There are still many problems with domestic violence, abuse,(call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE for help anytime), and other terrible things in the world. It is simply less difficult for people to get a divorce when they know marriage isn't going to work out. Sometimes two people make a mistake and get married when they aren't truly compatible.

Divorces happen for some different reasons. Sometimes a divorce will occur due to infidelity, but it may also occur due to a couple simply falling out of love. Getting divorced from your partner can be very taxing, but sometimes divorces can go smoothly too. There are cases where people realize that they aren't very compatible, and they simply agree to divorce but remain friends for the sake of their children.

Children being involved in a marriage does make divorce more complicated. Even when the marriage was ended under good circumstances, there are a lot of things to consider. Issues such as child support, custody, and even who is going to stay in the family home can be emotional. As difficult as these problems are on you, they will be even tougher on your children. Children may wind up feeling like their whole world is falling apart during a divorce unless their parents are careful to reassure them that everything will be okay.

So, what does a so-called “broken home” mean for the nuclear (or traditional) family model? Essentially, it means that the home is split into two. Two separate family units are created as branches off of the main model. Children raised in homes where the parents have been divorced can be just as loved and successful as any others. It all depends on how the parents decide to go about things and the choices that they make about working together for the benefit of their children.

Single Parents

There are many single parents in modern society as well. Sometimes, one of the parents in a relationship will simply leave the family. They may not be capable of raising children as well as they originally thought or they may have never been serious about the family to begin with. Some of these families start as nuclear families and then wind up having only one parent present. Others may have been that way from the very beginning, as sometimes fathers will leave their pregnant partner before the children are born.

A single parent doesn't fit into the nuclear (or traditional) family model very neatly. The dynamic of two parents doesn't exist in this type of a household, and there is only one authority figure present. Sometimes the single parent will remarry or find another person to date. This can wind up having someone new to assume the mantle of being a parent, but this doesn't always occur. You will see some families that will only have a single parent present for the duration of a child's adolescence.

This doesn't even necessarily have to be about one of the parents leaving. Some people simply choose to have children completely by themselves. An adult could choose to adopt a child if they have a strong urge to become a parent but do not have a romantic partner. Fertilization options are also an option for those capable of becoming pregnant.

It isn't necessary in modern times for two people to have a child together. Two people making a child together is still the most common situation, but there are other options that people can consider. In some ways, not having to worry about another person makes things easier. This entire situation has completely changed the ways that sociologists have to look at family structures.

The nuclear(or traditional) family model is certainly a bit outdated in many regards. It is hard to deny that the nuclear family ideal was a product of its time. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have its place or that it isn't significant. You just have to acknowledge that there are many other family structures out there that don’t fit into this mold and they are becoming more commonplace. 

As an example, single mothers have become incredibly common in Western society. There are a lot of women who work full time and raise their children all alone. This is very admirable, and many strong people have been raised in these types of households. Single fathers exist as well, and they have done a great job of performing the functions of both parents in many cases.

Same-Sex Marriages

Same-sex marriages also disrupt the nuclear family mold. Same-sex couples are more visible in modern times than they were several decades ago. Due to persecution, many individuals had to hide their sexuality for fear of being shunned or worse. Now, same-sex marriage is completely legal in the United States of America and Canada, which completely changes the idea of the nuclear family.

Families no longer consist of parents who are a “mother” and a “father,” which defies the makeup of the nuclear (or traditional) family model. Households exist with two fathers and several children. You can have a family unit that features two mothers and one child. The possibilities are much more complex and nuanced than anything that people used to consider.

Saying that these families aren't “normal” is disrespectful. Many people in society have grown beyond the point of persecuting others based on their sexual preferences. Families with same-sex parents can be just as nurturing and supportive as parents in a nuclear (or traditional) family.

The fact that gender roles and gender identity is changing in society should also be briefly touched upon. In the past, people thought of the concept of gender as being a simple matter. The topic is much more debated today. Transgender individuals also form family units, and these families need to be respected. The idea of an ideal family is something that is going to continue to change over time.

Adopted Children

Despite being briefly mentioned earlier, it is really important to speak about how adopted children fit into the family model. A married man and woman can adopt children, the family could function just as they would with the couple's biological children, and that would technically still fit the parameters of a nuclear (or traditional) family. Adoption tends to need more nuance in the modern day, however.

Need Guidance On How To Navigate Family Dynamics?

For instance, single people can adopt children. Gay couples are capable of adopting children as well. Neither of these would “fit” into the traditional model, but this is becoming a more common practice as the years go by.

You also see many people adopting children that belong to a different race than their own. The dynamics of multi-racial households can be unique in some ways as well. There is a lot to consider, and this topic could go on for a long time. The most important thing to take away is that there are children out there who will be adopted into families that have not historically been considered “traditional.” Regardless, these families can be beautiful and will provide loving environments where the children can grow.

When you recognize that there are kids who are looking for steady homes and an opportunity to be loved, it shouldn’t bother you that not all children, adopted or not, have what was once considered a “traditional” home.

Coping With Family And Other Issues

All families come with their own set of issues, but families who exist outside the “nuclear” structure may have extra issues to consider. They may have to deal with prejudice and ignorance in some cases. Not having one parent may lead to abandonment issues for some people. Transracial families may have to do extra work to make sure that the adopted child has a strong, healthy sense of identity and self-esteem as well as a connection to their race or culture.

And whether or not you grew up in a what was considered a nuclear (or traditional) family or not, there are always some children that grow up in environments that are not loving or supportive. If you had a tough family life growing up, then it can be beneficial to talk to someone about your struggles. Even if you have dealt with something as severe as abuse in your life, you will be able to get help to work through those problems. Seeking out professional therapists and counselors can make a big difference. You need to be able to speak about things that are bothering you to overcome them.

People who are the heads of families that aren’t considered traditional often face discrimination too. It is less common now than it was decades ago, but bigotry does still exist. If you are facing persecution due to your sexuality or gender identity, then it might be tough to face some of the difficulties thrown at you by society. Getting professional help by talking to caring therapists can allow you to feel better. It just depends on if you feel like you need the help and want to decide to reach out. The Trevor Project is another place you may check out for additional resources for LGBTQ+ folks. It includes the TrevorLifeline, which has trained counselors available 24/7 and can be reached at 1-866-488-7386.

You can sign up over at to get started. Being able to talk about certain problems in your life can be helpful. Sometimes you may even just want advice about raising children and how to cope with changes in your family. There is a lot to consider and having someone that you can rely on will feel nice. Consider reaching out if you feel like you could use a strong ally. BetterHelp also provides couples counseling, and Teen Counseling is available for those 13-18.

Some people might want to stick to “traditional” therapy as well, but online therapy has been proven by scientific research to usually be as effective as in-person therapy. While therapy looks a little different for everyone, the most common types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, work for a lot of the more common mental issues, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The New York Times recently wrote an article that broke some of this data down.

Online therapy has some distinct perks too. Depending on what your family looks like, your schedule might be intensely busy as well. BetterHelp allows for greater flexibility, with no travel required, and you can talk to someone anywhere you feel comfortable as long as you have a secure internet connection. Online therapy also tends to be less expensive than traditional therapy, which might be particularly appealing if you have multiple family members interested in therapy.

Here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users experiencing similar issues about their counselors:

“I highly recommend Alie! She is encouraging, helpful, and LGBT friendly. She has a lot of knowledge and understanding of the human mind, which she willingly shares. She’s very quick to respond and has a very warm counseling style. She has made my BetterHelp experience one of the best counseling services I have tried.” Read more on Alie Griffin.

“Chelsea has been more than helpful in the short time that I have worked with her period she listens intently and responds with appropriate suggestions based on my statements. I also appreciate being able to work with a black therapist who can understand some of the historical trauma that I deal with as a black woman in America. I would definitely recommend Chelsea and better help.” Read more on Chelsea Cooper.

Does The Nuclear (Or Traditional) Family Have A Place In Modern Society?

It is tough to say whether or not the nuclear family has a place in modern society. The fact is that family roles aren't going to stay the same forever. The nuclear (or traditional) family certainly wasn’t the only family model to exist in the past, particularly if you look outside of European nations. Society will continue to evolve, and the definition of what people find to be normal will necessarily change as well. It is highly likely that family units consisting of a mother, father, and their children will remain common in the future. This doesn't mean that this is the definition of the ideal family.

How To Move Towards Having A Healthy Family

The word family should always be associated with love. Love takes many forms and families are arranged in many different ways. What the future will hold for the definition of the nuclear (or traditional) family remains to be seen. You can count on sociologists to continue to update their models as they examine the ways that people interact with one another.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.