What is the typical American family structure? (2023)

There Are 6 Different Family Types And Each One Has A Unique Family Dynamic

Gone are the days when nuclear families (mom, dad + one or more kids) are considered the norm in the United States. These days, different family types are not only common but also much more accepted than they were in the past. It’s not uncommon to be raised by a single mother or be part of a mixed family. It seems more uncommon to live in a household where both parents are happily married, unfortunately, although many of those families do still exist.

What’s even more interesting is that each different family type (there are six main ones that people agree on) has a unique family dynamic. Learning about your family type and thinking about how it affects your family dynamic can help bring you clarity if you’re currently struggling with family problems or going through a big shift in your family structure. Looking at family type and dynamics can also give you a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses that your family is likely working with. Some people may also choose to begin parenting classes or online therapy to deepen their understanding of family dynamics.

Here Are 6 Different Family Types and Their Unique Family Dynamics:

1. Nuclear Family

Nuclear families, also known as elementary or traditional families, consist of two parents (usually married or common law) and their children. Nuclear families may have one or more children who are biological or adopted, but the main idea is that the parents are raising their kids together in the family home.

Even though nuclear families seem to be on the decline, 2016 U.S. Census data shows that 69% of children still live in nuclear families. Even though it doesn’t always work out that way, to most people this is the ideal family environment to raise children in.

Strengths of Nuclear Families:

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  • Financially stable, both parents usually work now
  • Children raised in a stable parenting situation
  • Consistency
  • Emphasis on health and education
  • Focus on communication

Weaknesses Of Nuclear Families:

  • Exclusion of extended family can lead to isolation and stress
  • Can struggle with conflict resolution
  • Nuclear families can become too child-focused, resulting in self-centered children and families neglecting other important things

Nuclear families can be strong and successful, with both parents being great examples for their kids. These kids often have many advantages over other families with less, which can help them get ahead in life. However, like any family, nuclear families have their struggles to face. For example, if parents shut out grandparents and other extended family, chances are their support system will not be strong and getting through hard times can be challenging.

2. Single Parent

Single parent families consist of one parent with one or more kids. In these cases, the parent either never married, is widowed, or divorced. A paper by Ellwood, D.T., and Jencks, C. (2004) talks about how single-parent families have been on the rise since the 1960s when divorce rates started going up (and so did births happening out of wedlock). They suggest that these changes could be due to many different factors, from leaving behind outdated gender roles to feeling comfortable being independent and achieving a goal of raising a child, regardless of the presence of a spouse or not.

Someone who is single parenting and raising kids alone is not that uncommon anymore, and like any other family type, single parent homes have their pros and cons.

Strengths of Single-Parent Families:

  • Family can become very close
  • Learn to household duties
  • Children and parents can become very resilient

Weaknesses of Single-Parent Families:

  • Families struggle to get by on one income; some are on social assistance
  • It can be difficult for parents to work full-time and still afford quality childcare

Being a single parent raising kids can be hard. It can also be hard being a kid when your parents are split up or if you grew up only knowing one parent. In this situation, families need to make the best of what they have and rely on each other for love and support.

3. Extended Family

While most people in the U.S. would identify nuclear families as being the «traditional» family type, in different cultures extended families are much more common and have been around for hundreds of years. Extended families are families with two or more adults who are related through blood or marriage, usually along with children. This often includes aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives living under the same roof.

Typically, extended families live together for social support and to achieve common goals. For example, parents may live with their children and their children’s grandparents. This gives the family the ability to provide care for their elderly, and in turn, the grandparents may be able to help with childcare while the parents are at work.

Strengths of Extended Families:

  • Things like respect and care for the elderly are important
  • More family around to help with chores, child care, in case of emergencies, etc.
  • Social support

Weaknesses of Extended Families:

  • Financial issues can occur if parents are supporting several other adults and children without any extra income
  • Lack of privacy depending on the living environment

In North America, extended families living together isn’t that common, but it does happen occasionally. What’s nice about extended families is how close they can be and how they give each other a lot of support. That doesn’t mean that so many family living together are always easy, though. There can be differences in opinion in extended families, and some people might live this way because they obligated, not because they want to.

4. Childless Family

Childless families are families with two partners who cannot have or don’t want kids. In the world of family types and dynamics, these families are often forgotten or left out (even though you can still have a family without children). In the past, growing up, getting married, and having children was the norm, but in today’s world, more people are choosing to postpone having children or deciding not to have any.

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These unique families include working couples who may have pets or enjoy taking on other people’s kids (like nieces and nephews) for the day occasionally rather than having their own. They could also be adventurous couples who don’t feel like kids would be a good fit for their lifestyle. These relationships can be between wife and husband, husband and husband, wife and wife, or partner and partner.

Strengths of Childless Families:

  • Typically have more disposable income
  • No dependents to take care of
  • Have more freedom to travel, go on adventures, pursue different careers or education
  • Couples get to spend more time together

Weaknesses of Childless Families:

  • Couples can feel isolated or left out when all their friends/family start having kids
  • If you like kids, you can feel like something is missing
  • Infertility can force a family to be childless, which can be hard for couples

The decision of whether to have kids is a difficult and highly personal one. Having kids isn’t for everyone, and some families do great without them. Still, it’s important to remember that some childless families are not childless because they want to be. Be kind before you assume about someone’s family unit, as a number of people (including women) may be in a childless family due to infertility, or have sensitivity regarding the topic of children in general.

5. Stepfamily

A stepfamily is when two separate families merge into one. This can go several different ways, like two divorced parents with one or more children blending families, or one divorced parent with kids marrying someone who has never been married and has no kids.

Like single-parent families, step-families have become more common over the years. Like all these different family types, stepfamilies also have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that they need to deal with.

Strengths of Stepfamilies:

  • Children get the benefit of having two parents around
  • Children and their new siblings or step-parents can form strong bonds
  • Benefit of having two incomes compared to single parent families

Weaknesses of Stepfamilies:

  • Adjustment can be difficult for parents and children
  • Parents can run into problems trying to discipline each other’s kids
  • May lack discipline or be inconsistent

Going from a nuclear or single parent family to a stepfamily can be a tough transition. It can be hard letting new people into your family dynamic, especially welcoming in a whole other family. Over time though, some children will come to accept their stepparents and step-siblings as part of the family and form strong bonds. This often also requires co-parenting of adoptive kids, and can increase the number of people each partner has to look after or care for in the family unit. Co-parenting is somewhat different from parallel parenting. Even if both procedures let both parents to share custody and parental obligations, co-parenting entails cooperation, plenty of communication, and a collaborative approach to parenting, compared to parallel parenting wherein there’s limited direct contact with each other. Step-grand-parents might also be involved in this dynamic, as there are many variations and a wide spread of how far a stepfamily can go.

6. Grandparent Family

The final family type is the grandparent family. A grandparent family is when one or more grandparent is raising their grandchild or grandchildren. While uncommon, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, grandparent-headed families are on the rise. They that, «Census data indicate that in the United States approximately 2.4 million grandparents are raising 4.5 million children.»

This situation happens when the parents aren’t around to take care of their kids or are incapable of properly taking care of their kids. For example, the parents might be incarcerated, too young to provide, may have a substance abuse disorder, or possibly due to parents death. Thankfully, in these situations, the grandparents step up and act as parents to their grandchildren. This family unit can happen regardless of being wealthy, poor, or middle-class.

Strengths of Grandparent Families:

  • Grandparents and grandchildren form a close bond
  • Keeps children from ending up in foster homes or other situations

Weaknesses of Grandparent Families:

  • Grandparents may not work or have full-time jobs, may struggle with income
  • Depending on their health, it may be difficult for them to keep up with young children or discipline them as they get older

It can be hard for grandparents to raise their grandchildren. In most cases, they probably thought they were done raising kids and might not have the health and energy to do so. Still, when needed, many grandparents step up and do what’s needed.


No matter what family of origin you identify with, each one has its strengths and weaknesses or pros and cons.. This is usually most clear to people who have experienced one or more changes in family type during their lifetime, so they can relate to how different each family dynamic can be. Whether you are in a same-sex family, have interracial relationship history, a binuclear family, a multigenerational family unit, or have parents who are polyamorous, have a large family, or have a small one, each family in modern society is unique in its own way.

Therapy (family or individual) can help those struggling with changes in family type/dynamics. Online counseling services like BetterHelp can provide an outlet for people who are going through a difficult time with their family.

Other things that can help you adjust to a new family dynamic are an open mind and some time. It’s normal to be resistant to change at first, but it’s okay to come around eventually. If you’re just interested in your family dynamic and working to get along better with your family, learning how family types and dynamics work is a great start. Whether you want to know more about the psychology behind family dynamics, about polygamous families, or just find a place to discuss what category you think your family fits into, online therapy is a great place to start.

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40 Facts About Two Parent Families

In the 1960s, for example, nearly 95 percent of babies were born to couples who were married. Today, 40 percent are born to women who are either single or living with a non-married partner.


The “typical” American family has changed radically over the last 50 years. American’s today are marrying later than ever before, divorcing sooner or avoiding the institution altogether. Whereas married couples dominated the family structure in years past, only 30 percent of millennials feel that a successful marriage is an important part of life. (See our blog about notable divorce trends of the 21st century)

As a result of this institutional erosion, more and more children are being born out of wedlock. In the 1960s, for example, nearly 95 percent of babies were born to couples who were married. Today, 40 percent are born to women who are either single or living with a non-married partner.

Often lost in the discussion of marital decline is a simple fact. Marriage is good for children. In fact, countless studies have shown that children born to married parents enjoy a number of socioeconomic benefits over those born to single parents.

Here are some important facts you should know.

  1. Today, only about 64 percent of children live in homes with two parents who are married, representing an all-time low (Pew Research Center). Trend data shows a stark and steady decline since 1960, when nearly 88 percent of children lived with married parents.

What is the typical American family structure? (1)

Fifteen percent of children today are living with parents who are remarried, and seven percent are living with cohabiting parents, while 26 percent are living with one parent only.

What is the typical American family structure? (2)

Fifteen percent of children today are living with parents who are remarried, and seven percent are living with cohabiting parents, while 26 percent are living with one parent only.

The Effects of Family Structure on Children

1. A solid, intact family structure can have a significantly positive impact on a child’s present and future wellbeing and offers countless benefits for both adults and children.

2. Children growing up in homes where two parents who have been married continuously are less likely to experience a wide range of problems (academic, social, emotional, cognitive), not only in childhood but later on in adulthood as well (Amato; Howard & Reeves,).

3. In two parent families, for example, children typically have access to more of the economic and community resources because parents are able to pool their time, money and energy; children tend to be more of the focus of the home.

4. Family intactness has also been shown to have a consistently positive influence on earnings for prime-age males and is one of the most important factors (or shared the place of greatest importance) for females and children in determining an area’s dependence on welfare programs that targets poverty.

5. Research also shows that family intactness has a beneficial influence on reducing out of wedlock births, increasing high school and college graduation rates, and even has long-term benefits such as higher employment rates.

6. Children living with married parents are more often involved in community activities such as soccer or other sports, take part in academic pursuits in local schools and other academic institutions that can lead to college, and eventually, a career.

What is the typical American family structure? (3)

7. Family intactness increases high school and college graduation rates, as well as high employment rates

8. Overall, intact families tend to be more stable; parents tend to be more involved in their children’s lives and are more highly invested in their children’s success.

9. Fathers of intact families spend, on average, more time with their children. They also enjoy greater family cohesion than peers with adopted children or stepchildren (Lansford, et al.). In summary, children living with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage tend to do better on a host of outcomes than those living in step-parent families.

10. Children living with both biological parents are 20 to 35 percent more physically healthy than children from broken homes (Dawson).

11. Research shows that family structure is related to preschool children’s cognitive development skills. For example, a study by Kinard and Reinherz found that children from two parent homes had higher scores on verbal reasoning than those from single parent homes.

12. A study by Ginther and Pollack found that children growing up in intact families (traditional nuclear families) were more likely to graduate from high school and complete college compared to those who were raised in blended or single-parent homes.

13. Manning and Lamb found that adolescents in intact families had higher levels of academic achievement and were less likely to exhibit problem behaviors in school compared to peers living in homes where single mothers lived alone or with a cohabiting partner.

14. Following divorce, children are 50 percent more likely to develop health problems than two parent families.

15. In homes with stepfathers, peers were more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school, more likely to have engaged in delinquent behavior, to have problems getting along with teachers, doing homework, paying attention in school, and have lower grade point averages than those living in intact homes.

16. Children of divorce are at a greater risk of experiencing injury, headaches, speech defects, and other health concerns than children whose parents have remained married (Dawson).

17. Clearly, children do best in a stable family environment where well-adjusted parents have established consistent routines for the home. On the other hand, an environment of turmoil where continual conflict, multiple school or parental employment changes are linked to lower levels of child well-being (Teachman)

What is the typical American family structure? (4)

18. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

19. The decline in two parent families has accounted for the three-fold increase in single parent homes, most often headed by single moms.

20. According to Pew Research, over half (57 percent) of those living with married parents were in households with incomes at least 200% above the poverty line, compared with just 21 percent of those living in single-parent households.

21. According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Rector called marriage one of the greatest weapons against child poverty.

What is the typical American family structure? (5)

Single mother statistics

1. According to the CDC, 4 out every 10 children are born to unwed mothers. Nearly two-thirds are born to mothers under the age of 30.

2. Today 1 in 4 children under the age of 18 – a total of about 17.4 million – are being raised without a father and nearly half (45 percent) live below the poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau).

3. Unmarried mothers generally have lower incomes, lower education levels, and are more likely to be dependent on welfare assistance compared with married mothers (Child Trends Data Bank).

4. Around 49 percent of single mothers have never married, 51 percent are either divorced, separated or widowed. Half have one child, 30 percent have two.

What is the typical American family structure? (6)

5. Single mothers are more likely to be poor than married couples.

6. Single mothers earn income that place them well below married mothers in the income ladder. The gap between the two groups is significant.

7. The median income for families led by a single mother in 2013 was about $26,000, one third (⅓) the median for married couple families ($84,000). Nearly half of single mother households had an annual income of less than $25,000.

8. Single mothers often spend over half of their income on housing expenses and a third on child care.

9. Without financial aid, single mother students — a total of about 2 million — have little or no means to contribute financially to their educational expenses.

Single father statistics

1. While there were less than 300,000 single father households in 1960, there were more than 2.6 million in 2011. In comparison, single mother households increased more than four times that many during that same time period, up from 1.9 million in 1960 to 8.6 million in 2011.

2. Single father households differ from single mother households on several levels. For the most part, those headed by single fathers tend to be better off financially compared to those of single mothers. However, compared to men who remarry, single father households tend to younger, less educated and have lower incomes.

3. Pew’s analysis of Decennial Census and American Community Survey data found that a record eight percent of households with minor children in the U.S. are headed by a single father, up from just over one percent in 1960.

4. According to Pew Research Center, there has been a nine-fold increase in single father households since 1960.

5. Single fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41 percent versus 16 percent).

6. Single fathers tend to have higher incomes and are far less likely to be living at or below the poverty line than single mothers. Still, they fare much worse than married men.

Statistics show that men who become fathers outside of marriage are more likely to be poor. These men were 70 to 90 percent more likely to be poor compared to men who never had children before marriage.

For those living with father only, about 21 percent live in poverty. In contrast, among children living with both parents, only 13 percent are counted as poor.

Despite the overwhelming benefits of two parent homes, the ‘stay together for the kids’ axiom isn’t always the right one. In fact, children are not always better off if their parents are married and living in the same home – especially if their parents are in a high conflict relationship. High conflict relationships can have disastrous effects on children, especially in children’s attitudes and feelings about themselves (something that studies have shown not to be affected by living arrangement). Staying in an irretrievably broken marriage isn’t healthy for anyone, the parents or the children. However, if a marriage is fixable, weighing the benefits for children may make married parents think long and hard about starting over. At the same time, unmarried parents are not all that different from married ones in terms of behavior. Marriage doesn’t make anyone a better parent, it simple allows access to more resources and opportunities for children overall.

What is the “Traditional American Family?”

What is the typical American family structure? (7)

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Posted By: Laurel Moglen

An interview with Stephanie Coontz

What is the “traditional family?” Working father, stay-at-home mom, and two kids? In this day and age, so few families fit that description, it’s basically a ridiculous notion. As the Holidays approach, we’re very interested in learning more about what today’s families really look like, and how it’s affecting our kids. At what point will the vision of what makes the “Traditional American Family” be altered to reflect our new realities? We got a welcomed reality check from Stephanie Coontz, esteemed author and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. We want to know: who sits at your holiday table? And more importantly, who’s making dinner? — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC

What is the most current percentage of American families that fit into the “traditional” category – that is working dad, stay-at-home mom, and kid/s?

New census figures show that as of 2011, only 23% of married couple families with children younger than age 15 have a stay-at-home mother (SAHM). These days, there are more kids being raised by single moms than by married couples where the man earns all the income and the wife stays home.

What are the stats of gay, lesbian, stay-at-home-dads, and other “non-traditional” families?

Married couples with children account for less than a quarter of all households. More than 30 percent of households are single person households. 23 percent of children live with a single mother, 5 percent with a single father. More than 70 percent of all children live in families where every adult in the household is employed. Stay-at-home-dads are still a small minority — less than a million in the country –but dads do the primary childcare for more than a quarter of the children whose mother works outside the home.

According to revised estimates from the 2010 census, there are 131,729 same-sex married couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the united states, but this relies on self-reports, so is biased toward the low side. About 20 percent of same-sex couples are raising kids.

What are the myths about the “Traditional American Family’?

One myth is that male breadwinner families were “the” traditional family. Much more traditional has been the custom of having a family labor force — either with the wife as co-provider or the children, and often both. It was not until the 1920s that a bare majority of kids grew up in a family where the mother was not working on the farm or in a small business, and where the children were in school instead of in the workforce. That family form receded in the Depression and World War II and came roaring back in the 1950s, largely due to a combination of discrimination against female workers and unprecedented rises in real wages for young men, as home prices fell in the postwar boom, wages rose, and government invested in new jobs, job training, and educational opportunities. Most researchers agree that it will never come back as the majority family form.

Another myth is that parents used to spend more time with their children in the 1950s and 1960s. While the hours moms spent looking after their children did initially fall as women entered the workforce, they started to rise again after 1980, so that today, parents spend more time with their kids than in 1965. (In 1965, kids spent more time with siblings and friends or just playing, watching tv in their rooms, and less in direct contact with mom than today, even though moms were often around more.) Working moms today spend somewhat less time interacting with their kids than SAHMs, but they spend more time with their kids than SAHMs did in 1965, the high point of male breadwinner families.

Meanwhile, dads’ time with kids has quadrupled, and husbands of working moms spend more time with their children than husbands of SAHMs.

Yet another myth is that there is this deep divide between what SAHMs and employed moms want. While a majority of employed moms would like to cut back their work hours, 40 percent of SAHMs wish they had a job. And when moms “opt out,” this is very often not their first choice, but their fallback when their employers won’t adjust hours or policies or their husband won’t or can’t lessen his hours enough to pitch in at home. Most women would like more balance in their work and family options, and so would most dads. In fact, unlike 35 years ago, men now report higher levels of work-family conflict than do women.

How are young children (ages 3-6) affected by their non-traditional families?

How a family functions is more important than how it looks from the outside. For example, statistics say that the best predictor of a child’s academic success is the mother’s education and aspirations for her child, not her marital state. A new study finds that on average, kids who have SAHMs during the first year of life have some small advantages over those who have working moms, but the reverse is true for those whose moms work during years 2 and 3 — and ultimately, most of the differences average out over the next 5 or 6 years. The big risk to kids is moms’ depression, and a study shows — this is a win-win situation, somewhat like the fact that the more you nurse, the more your breast milk comes on — that moms are least depressed when they are doing what they want.

For example, another recent study shows that the highest rates of depression are found in SAHMs who wish they had a job and in employed moms who want to stay home but have to work, and have only been able to find work in a low-quality job. Interestingly, moms who want to stay home but have a high-quality job have just about as low rates of depression as moms who are getting their first choice. Which suggests that SAHMs should be sure to keep their social networks and skills up so if they do want or need to go to work, they can get a job that gives them more control over their work and more flexibility.

It’s very important for parents not to let themselves be tyrannized by averages. There is tremendous variability in outcomes, and parents have to find what arrangements suit both their individual needs and the dynamics of their family life. That said, children do better, whatever their parents’ working arrangements, when parents have access to parental leaves, well-funded and carefully regulated child care, and work-family benefits. And the U.S. lags behind every other rich country in the world in these matters.

Is there any indication that the “traditional family” form is more or less stable than the “non-traditional” family?

Again, variations in functioning and background count for more than the specific form. The most stable families are those with college-educated parents, whoever works. But women with higher education are LESS likely, not more likely, to opt out of the labor force. In heterosexual couples, the important predictor of marital stability is how fair the woman perceives the division of housework and childcare to be. (And a word to the wise for men: Women feel more intimate and more sexually attracted to their husbands when their husbands do housework and childcare — there’s another win-win proposition.) Another factor is the age at first marriage. For every year a woman postpones marriage, right up to her early 30s, her chance of divorce goes down.

Why is the image of the traditional family (working dad, SAHM, and kids under 18) so entrenched in the American consciousness?

The breadwinner family of the 1950s was, in fact, a very new — and short-lived — invention. But it coincided with the development of television, and those images were burned into our consciousness. Also, most of the political and economic leaders in America, until recently, were products of that generation. They assumed that was the norm and that’s what they taught their own children. They designed their work and social policies around that assumption and idealized that family form in the mass culture.

How long will it last? I do think people are much more accepting of diversity than even 20 years ago, but our work policies, social programs, and even school schedules have been designed in ways that assume every working American has someone at home to take care of the rest of life, so a lot of economic and political leaders are in denial. Fearing it would be expensive and troublesome to adjust to the complex realities of family life today, they ask the rest of us to adjust to their simplistic fantasies about family life.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, which she chaired from 2001-04. She has authored many books including, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992 and 2000, Basic Books) and A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2011).

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