Understanding the Family Unit

On Friday 15 May, we celebrate the International Day of Families. At this time, we are reminded of the value of family and fostering a healthy family structure.

Diversity of family units

Family units are as diverse as there are families. Many families exist in traditional nuclear forms consisting of two parents and their children which is common in industrial societies.  There are variants of this, of course. Many families have only one parent and his or her dependent children. Blended families are becoming more common, forming when divorced parents meet new partners, marry and bring together their respective sets of children. Some people prefer to structure their living arrangements as joint families where adult siblings, spouses and their children all live together. There are also polygamous societies where multiple spouses co-exist with their children. More recently, there is a phenomenon of becoming family by choice. Individuals view themselves as families, even if their relationship is not formally recognised by the legal system – for example, children who are informally adopted, live-in partners, relatives of household members and close friends.

In most of the world, however, the extended family is the norm with three generations existing at the same time – grandparents, parents and children (Lumen Learning, n.d.).

Purpose of family

As humans, we are hard-wired to attach to each other and to fulfil the purposes of family that are to create a sense of belonging and to care for each other socially, emotionally and economically.  This is more evident in less developed societies, where interdependence is the norm, than in individualistic Western societies, who tend to operate as smaller, more independent units (Chen, 2017).

Families as systems

In whatever form it exists, a family functions as one emotional unit or system. A system is a set of connected parts that work together as an organised structure. When trying to make sense of family systems, we see that change in one part of the system affects all the other components. Family members and the family system will always react to events in a way that seeks to bring about stability and balance (The Bowen Center, n.d.). So, for example, if the primary breadwinner in a family is retrenched, the impact of this will ripple through the entire family system, emotionally and economically. Likewise, if a family member suffers an illness or an addiction, the whole family is affected and will try to make adjustments, in order to reach an acceptable form of equilibrium by helping him or her recover.

It is normal for families to face challenges, stresses and losses alongside the joys of love, belonging, recognition and nurture.

We must remember that family systems exist within larger systems and environments. Family members will view life from many perspectives, based on their backgrounds, cultures and personalities. Couples may come together from different religions and ethnicities and might have set expectations of how each gender should behave. There will also be inter-generational factors and the varying requirements of distinctive developmental life stages. Families need to find a way to reconcile these dissimilarities and create their own mini-culture, or to make peace with each other’s unique priorities or needs.

So then, it is normal for conflict to occur from time to time, as each person tries to find their place in the family dynamic whilst meeting their own basic needs. As a simple example, imagine a family of four, three of whom are introverts, and the fourth, who is an extrovert. Introverts recharge by spending time alone, whereas, an extrovert recharges by being social. In this family, the extrovert is likely to be quite frustrated by a lack of social stimulation. The three introverts may look forward to quiet and predictable weekends filled with one-on-one conversations and pursuing hobbies in depth. They may not appreciate the extrovert’s need to have plenty of friends over and to be engaged in three or four social activities during the weekend. Thus, conflict may result. Creating a positive, consistent and nurturing family environment will take conscious effort and respect for each other’s needs and preferences.

Family Roles

It is also worth mentioning the hierarchical nature of families. Families are not democracies. Parents are usually expected to be the leaders of the family and children are expected to follow their leadership. With age, children develop more autonomy (American Academy of Paediatrics, 2015).

Research shows us that authoritative parenting is most effective. This is in contrast with authoritarian parenting, which is harsh, domineering and punitive; permissive parenting, where parents tend to be very loving but provide too few guidelines and rules; and hands-off parenting which is uninvolved. Authoritative parents are highly responsive to children’s needs and also have high standards. They set limits and consistently enforce boundaries (Lloyd, 2016).


American Academy of Paediatrics. (2015). Roles Within the Family. HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved 2 May 2020, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/Pages/Roles-Within-the-Family.aspx.

Chen, X. (2017). East and West parenting values are migrating and shaping each other. Child and Family Blog. Retrieved 2 May 2020, from https://www.childandfamilyblog.com/child-development/east-west-parenting/.

Lloyd, C. (2016). What’s your parenting style?. Parenting. Retrieved 2 May 2020, from https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/types-of-parenting-styles/.

Lumen Learning. Types of Families | Cultural Anthropology. Courses.lumenlearning.com. Retrieved 2 May 2020, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/culturalanthropology/chapter/types-of-families/.

The Bowen Centre. Theory. The Bowen Centre. Retrieved 2 May 2020, from https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.


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