Family Structure

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

As we continue to wrestle with the complexity of understanding families, one large task would be simply defining the word family. A family may meet the traditional image of two married, biological parents and their children—or it may mean single parents, grandparents raising children, same-sex couples raising children, adoptive parents, or foster parents. Parents may be of the same or different religions and of the same or different races or cultures. The changing composition of the family does not change what is important to the child about being a member of a family, however. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes” (Perrin, 2002, p. 341). In the recent past, we considered the two-biological-parent family as “normal” and regarded any other family structure as having deficits. The many changes in the structure of families have caused us to look at this differently. We currently view all families as having both risk factors and protective factors (Seifer, Sameroff, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1992). Risk factors are those life events or personal characteristics that threaten a child or family’s well-being. Protective factors are the events and characteristics that act against risk factors (Donahoo, 2003). Any family structure may have risk factors and protective factors, given the particular characteristics of the family. For example, a calm, nurturing single-parent home would provide more protection than a two-biological-parent home affected by alcohol and violence. Children can grow up happily, healthy, and without serious problems in all kinds of families, but children in two-parent households are more likely to escape poverty, teenaged unmarried childbearing, and school and mental health issues (ChildTrends 2002; Weitoft, Hjern, Haglund, & Rosén, 2003). The majority of American children live in two-parent households; however, according to census reports, that percentage has been steadily decreasing since the 1960s. About 69% of children live with two parents (biological or stepparents), 22% live with only their mother, 4% live with only their father, and 4% live with neither parent (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). In order to work effectively with extremely diverse families and their infants and toddlers, it is helpful to understand some of the issues that may be related to family structure. There are so many variations to the American family, and the issues surrounding them are so complex, that the following discussion should be considered a brief introduction to a topic worthy of deeper study.


Each year nearly 1 million American children experience the divorce of their parents and, before they reach adulthood, over half of all children will live in a home with one parent only (Cathcart & Robles, 1996). Parents who are able to navigate the breakup of their marriages without extreme conflict may spare their children some of the negative outcomes associated with divorce. Nonetheless, many children suffer effects of divorce—such as problems in the parent-child relationship (Wallerstein, 1985), poor school attendance and performance (Cherlin et al., 1991), and aggressive or disobedient behavior—and children who are under the age of 6 when their parents divorce appear to be most vulnerable (Shaw, 1991). Parents of infants and toddlers have particular issues to consider when they divorce. Infants and toddlers may not be able to understand the difficulties their parents are experiencing, but they are very aware of the emotional tone of their environment. The sadness, tension, and anger of divorce can be very stressful to even very young infants (Doescher, Hare, & Morrow, 1996). The baby’s ability to develop a sense of trust in others depends on the adults’ predictability and consistent emotional availability. Custody issues concerning parenting time are quite complex when it comes to infants and toddlers. Breastfeeding, for example, can be a significant factor in determining how much time the baby can spend with the father, away from the mother (Baldwin, Friedman, & Harvey, 1997). A recent study (George & Soloman, 2003) suggests that overnight visitation with fathers in divorced or separating families relates to a high occurrence of disorganized attachment in 12- to 18-month-olds. Two thirds more of these children demonstrated disorganized attachment, compared to infants who saw their fathers only during daytime visits. Disorganized attachment occurs when infants are unable to signal their distress to parents in order to elicit contact and comfort. These babies were unable to utilize their parents as a resource for handling stress. The degree of harmful effects of the overnight visits was related to the parents’ ability to remain responsive to the baby’s behavior, to communicate and cooperate about the baby’s well-being, and to keep conflicts away from the baby. Implications for teachers.

An infant-toddler teacher needs to be sure that she relates fairly to both divorced parents, supporting each parent’s relationship with the child. She must remain neutral in a situation that can be fraught with difficult feelings. In supporting the child’s relationship with each parent, the teacher must keep both parents well informed about the child and find ways, when necessary, to describe the effect that the parent’s relationship, or the custody situation, is having on the child.

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