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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Stacked hands of a family

There is no doubt that family structure and dynamics have drastically changed over the past few decades. You can see it all around you. You see it when you go to the park, when you take your child to daycare, when you go to your place of worship. Statistics, research, demographics, definitions, and articles will inform you of the exact changes with numbers, beautiful graphs, and valid arguments. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have certainly read my share of all of those things. But, I wanted to know what unbiased people had to say about what they have observed personally on the changes in family dynamics and structure. So, I found my participants by getting on social media and asking this one question: How have you seen family structure and dynamics change over the past two decades or so? I would love to share each and every detailed response, but that may defeat the purpose of a blog. I could really write a book from every response I received. So, I took some common themes and pieced the responses together. Here is what I got:

  1. “Traditional” family has changed in how it looks- lesbian, gay couples, single parents
  2. Both parents are in the workforce
  3. Children have more independence and choices in their lives
  4. Heavier involvement with grandparents and extended family members
  5. Daycares and nannies have more involvement for longer periods of time in raising children
  6. Increase in adoptions, single parent adoptions
  7. Increase in divorced and blended families
  8. Families are living further away from each other because of jobs, marriage, etc.
  9. Huge advances in technology, both helping and hurting
  10. Increase in schedules- involvement in activities outside of the home (Both children and parents)
  11. Marriages happening later in life
  12. Retirement happening later in life and then going back in to the workforce for more money and other reasons
  13. Increase in debt concerns in the home
  14. Children no longer playing outside or having as much face to face interaction with others
  15. Parents trying to be their child’s friends and peers; afraid to let their children fail at anything

All of the responses I received were right in line with the articles, demographics, statistics, and definitions I mentioned above. Even Merriam-Webster have tried to capture the changes in their newest definition of family.

In the Seventh edition from 1963, family was defined as the basic unit in society having its nucleus two or more adults living together and cooperating in the care and rearing of their own or adopted children.

In the Eleventh edition from 2014, family is defined as the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also: any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family.

Notice the slight changes in the wording that can now encompass so much more. They discarded “nucleus” and “living together” and added “traditionally” followed by “any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to traditional family” implying that there are many different dynamics that make up a family”.

While gathering all of the responses I received, I started wondering about ways in which family has not changed. And to piggy back on that, I started to wonder about ways in which there have been positive impacts as a result some of the changes mentioned above. With more involvement from extended family and more “parental” figures in the lives of children, I find myself hoping this means that there are larger support systems now in place. And would that also mean more emotional connections? Call me an eternal optimist or someone who often looks at the glass half full, but I would like to believe that there are truly some benefits from the changes in family. By defining family as a social unit, it allows for so many more people to keep the ties amongst support systems that all of us humans so need and cherish. Family now encompasses those daycare workers and nannies that potty train our children and teach them to read; that kiss their boo-boos and wipe their tears. Family can be two mothers who loved an unborn baby so much that they made them their own through adoption. Family can be a divorced couple with children and stepchildren and half-siblings and step-parents, all thriving as each other’s support system. There is beauty to be found in the changing dynamics of family. Sometimes you have to just look a little deeper than your statistics and research.

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the social media and webinar coordination specialist for OneOp. OneOp aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp on Facebook and Twitter.

Blog Image: Photo from Flickr [The R Family – 2 by RebeccaVC1, July 30, 2010, CC BY-ND 2.0]