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What Does Extended Family Mean?

By Emma Davies


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Have you ever wondered what the exact definition of extended family is? In simple terms, the extended family is a family structure that includes more relatives than the nuclear family. Extended family members include grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

What Does Extended Family Mean?

It is important to know that the extended family meaning is a little more complex than just a list of people you are related to. Like the nuclear family, extended families live in the same family home, or have close ties, and each member will have their own role within the family structure.

The Definition of Extended Family

To understand the extended family meaning, it is first important to know what a nuclear family is. Nuclear family is the term given to describe the traditional family structure of two parents, living together and raising their biological or adoptive children. In comparison, the extended family is a much larger family unit and can include the relatives of each parent.

Extended families can also be known as multi-generational households, complex family units, or joint families. In many cultures, the nuclear family is at the center of the extended family household, they are the tie joining the family members together.

Multi-generational households are not as commonplace here in the US, but can frequently be found in several other parts of the world. Extended family units are a popular family structure in:

  • Asia
  • Southern Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Africa
  • The Middle East
  • Latin America
  • Pacific Islands

In recent years, data has shown that extended family households are growing here in the US. There are several reasons why this family unit is becoming more popular in the West, including better financial stability.

Modified Extended Family

Traditionally, the extended family unit is considered to be several relatives living with a nuclear family unit. If the family weren’t all living in the same household, they did live close by, have close bonds and all have different roles to help the household as a team.

Technology advances have meant that the extended family has changed over time. Now extended family members are able to stay connected with each other, even if they are living in different countries.

In the modified extended family structure, relatives may send each other money. For example, adult children may have moved away from home to get a well paid job, sending money back to the rest of their extended family who still live in a poorer country.

The internet and smartphones have made keeping strong family ties easier than ever before. Family members outside of the ‘core’ nuclear family unit are easily able to still play a large part in their loved ones’ lives.

Extended Family Member Examples

Who is an extended family member and who is not? Well, it depends how you look at it. If you are looking at blood relatives, members of the extended family include grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other distant relatives. An example of a multi-generational household can include a husband, wife, their children and their parents (the grandparents).

Another example of an extended family structure could be a husband, wife, their children, the husband’s siblings and parents. Living with the extended family can give the core family unit greater support and financial security. A modern example of a multi-generational household is the Madrigal family in the Disney movie Encanto.

Some people do not have close ties with their biological family, instead forging close connections with their friends or local community. A large group of housemates may not be related by blood, but they might consider each other family. Like an extended family household, close friends living together can share the chores, split the bills and provide support to each other when needed.

Roles in the Extended Family

Looking at the Madrigal family again from Encanto, there are very clear roles for each of the family members in the household. For example, Abuela is the head of the family – the matriarch – and the extended family all live in her home. Luisa (one of Abuela’s grandchildren) is strong and in charge of the more difficult chores and Julieta (one of Abuela’s daughters) has a traditional motherly role, taking care of everyone and cooking.

Of course, Encanto is a movie but it is common for members of real extended families to have different roles within the household. Grandparents may be responsible for childcare while the parents work, unemployed family members may take charge of household chores while other relatives take care of the finances.

Some extended families will have an established ‘head of the household’, but this may not always be the case. Often, the owners of the house will be considered as the ‘core family’ and the other relatives living there are classed as the extended family members.

Extended Family Advantages and Disadvantages

All households have their pros and cons. There are benefits to living at home with your parents as an adult, just as there are perks to living in a traditional nuclear family set up. The extended family structure has several advantages and is still the standard set up in many cultures today.

Advantages of Extended Family:

  • Financial security – There is no denying that modern life is expensive. Living in a multigenerational household can help to ease the financial strain. For example, a young couple may move in with one set of parents to save money on rent, making it possible for them to buy their own home in the future.Older generations may also live with younger relatives for the same reason. Grandparents or retired relatives may be struggling to make ends meet and living in an extended family household will provide them with greater financial security.
  • Free childcare – Nursery fees can be extortionate and many young parents may not be able to afford childcare. In these circumstances, having grandparents or other relatives living in the family home can be beneficial. For instance, when a baby is born, the mom’s parents may move in with the family to help raise the baby and provide free childcare when needed.
  • Close bonds – It can be easy to fall out of touch with our extended family members, especially if close bonds weren’t formed during childhood. A multi-generational family structure can help to strengthen bonds and positive relationships can flourish between everyone in the family unit.
  • Pass-down cultural values – When you live with your parents, grandparents and other older relatives, strong family values and cultural belief systems can easily be passed from one generation to the next. For example, grandparents can share stories from their childhood, help to model parenting values to their children and build a strong sense of family.

Disadvantages of the Extended Family

  • Less independence – Living with the extended family can be difficult for young couples who crave their independence. Newlyweds may want the space to start their married life and living with other family members can make this challenging.
  • Not enough space – Even if everyone in the extended family has their own bedroom, there may not be enough space in the house for everyone to live comfortably. When you feel like you are living on top of each other and having to deal with other people’s mess, tensions can build inside the home.
  • Uneven distribution of labor – Living in a large family unit can be wonderful, but only if everyone pulls their weight. When roles are not clearly defined, certain family members may take advantage, becoming lazy and causing others in the house to become frustrated and resentful.
  • Arguments over inheritance – If a will has not been written, when a member of the extended family dies, their assets will be divided between their legal immediate family members. The immediate family is not the same as the extended family, it only includes a person’s parents, spouse and children.

Arguments over inheritance can occur when members of the extended family feel like they were closer to the deceased and deserve more than the legal immediate family members. The best thing to do if you live in an extended family is to clearly state in a legal will how you wish your possessions to be divided.

The Best Family Structure?

While there are some downsides to the extended family, there are many more positives to this family structure. Extended families include relatives of all different ages and each generation can bring something unique and meaningful to the household.

Children growing up in a multi-generational household have the advantage of spending daily quality time with their grandparents. Also, if there are several children living in the same house – such as cousins – this can lead to a childhood full of fun and excitement.

Every family structure has its own pros and cons, no one set up is better than the next. That being said, the extended family remains the standard family structure in many parts of the world and is growing in popularity here in the US.

About Emma Davies

Emma Davies is a freelance writer that specializes parenting and animal topics. With over 20 years experience as a parent there are very few topics that faze her.

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