The neurological effects of the nuclear family and alternative upbringings
Articles / Blog
06-24-15 Category: Mental Health, Therapy


In theory, the closest relationships people typically have are with their family members. Once a person is born, parents and perhaps some siblings will shed their influence over the growing individual for years to come. Both explicit and implicit lessons will be learned and applied as he or she develops and the members of one’s household, bound by blood or adoption, will all witness and play a part in the child’s critical period of development. In short, the characteristics of a person’s family structure and situation play a big role in determining many future implications for the child.

Researching and recording different types of upbringings is a line of research with a lot of history in the field of psychology. In a 1963 exploratory study, researchers analyzed the role of family during a crisis, transitional turning points or major life changes, such as marriage, childbirth, teens moving out and death. During its initial phase, the study found that stable family development is a satisfactory marital relationship based off of individual health status, a harmony or good fit between the partners and the social functioning of the two people as a unified couple. The last requirement is especially important in determining if the relationship can handle raising a child.

In a 1977 longitudinal observation of different families, researchers began to draw lines and distinguish classes of family structure. Factors such as socioeconomic status and race were included as well. Most importantly, the researchers began to notice and compare the various combinations of parental presence. From “mother alone” to “mother/grandmother” and “mother/stepfather“ classifications, the vast list of possibilities were assessed for mental health risk. Findings determined that certain adult figures had a significant impact on a child’s psychological state, as grandmothers were nearly as effective as fathers when paired with a mother. In addition, the subjective report of a mother’s degree of loneliness was a better predictor of risk than the actual absence of a father.

Since these pioneering examples of family and mental health research solidified a direction for the field, current studies have continued to delve into the underlying processes that take place between close relatives. A 2007 study and a 2010 collection of findings both affiliated with the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined new family archetypes besides the nuclear, biologically parented family, including:

  • Single-parent: only one adult
  • Unmarried biological/adoptive: two adults who are not married to one another, but each are genetically related to or directly adopted the child
  • Blended: One biological or adoptive parent and an unrelated stepparent who is married to the other
  • Cohabiting: One biological or adoptive parent and an unrelated adult who is living with the other
  • Extended: One biological or adoptive parent and a related adult who is living with the other, such as a grandparent or sibling of the other parent
  • Other: Unrelated adults who are not biological or adoptive parents. This also includes grandparent-only families

From these groupings, the 2010 analysis of previous U.S. national surveys found that between 2001 and 2007, a 48.4 percent majority of family structures follow the nuclear model. The runner-up was extended families at 19 percent. When viewing non-Hispanic black populations the data changed significantly, showing that the most prevalent case of family life was defined by single mothers at 32 percent. The majority is followed by extended, nuclear and higher rates of alternative family structures.

In the 2007 study, results showed that children belonging to single-mother and grandparent-only families had substantially lower physical and mental health than other family types. The scholars conclude that the interrelated elements of marital status, divorce and income are large contributors to the distress and consequential health of involved children. Divorce and dissolution of the parental relationship can lead to a conflictive environment for development. Divorce can also affect the income of parents and lead to more stressful, influential situations as one grows up.

The collected information from these various studies highlights the importance of a strong parental presence for raising a child and strengthening the family altogether. It also showcases the extra need of services for families who do not match the nuclear mold.

Sovereign Health Group is an organization that considers the family system a crucial aspect in developing secure mental health and resilience. Sovereign’s multiple locations across the state specialize in addressing the issues of each family member, whether it is a parent or an adolescent. If you or your loved one is struggling with mental illness and/or addiction, you can contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs for mental health disorders, addiction and dual diagnosis. Chat online or call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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