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Notes on The Value of an Extended family

February 2014

In the self-help literature directed at parents you might have noticed that virtually no attention is paid to the emotional upheavals you are likely to face – the disturbing return of long festering feelings, the sense of being driven to behave in ways you would rather not think about, and the haunting sensations of being inhabited by the ghost of your own mother or father as you try to relate to your child. What if, during those times when you are in the midst of being your most hurtful, you could set up a situation that would allow for selective separation from your child?  It could be helpful as well as a relief for you to know that contact with empathic, sensitive adults outside of your immediate family – an extended family, so to speak, could compensate for your own fears and inadequacies.

An extended family may be defined as consisting of one or more adults (in addition to the natural parents) who maintain consistent contact with a child over a significant period of time.  A close friend, favorite relative, godparent, “Big Brother,” or counselor could be considered to belong to this category.  These kinds of people can offer the child an ally, a person in whom he can confide, an adult who is relatively unbiased and objective concerning the child and his relationships.

When a child is not seen or heard over a prolonged period of time by his parents it is harmful to his development.  Studies show that children are better off having some “time-off” from their parents when their parents are hostile or unable to relate personally to them. By developing an extended family situation, parents can offer their child a variety of inputs, points of view different from their own that expand their child’s world and give him an enlarged perspective and a more realistic picture of life.  This provides the child with a more comprehensive and secure base from which to operate.   Furthermore, in the case of illness or emotional breakdown in the natural parent, there is a support system already available to him. 

Contrary to popular opinion, the traditional family system as we know it is not the cause of children’s problems.  The cause is the individual defenses and maladaptive behaviors of the people involved within it.  Certainly as a parent your energy is best directed toward improving those relations within your family that damage your children.  At the same time you will also benefit by remaining open to alternative life-styles, extended family relationships, and other means for improving your child’s life. 

Overall advantages of an extended family situation:
Children tend to thrive in a generalized social atmosphere of sharing and congeniality in which they are not solely dependent on one or more specific adults to gratify their needs. 

An extended family may be defined as consisting of one or more adults, in addition to the child’s natural parents, who maintain consistent contact with the child over a significant period of time.  A close friend, a grandparent or other favorite relative, a godparent, an older sibling, a  neighbor, or a mentor could be considered to belong to this category.

In addition, close association and friendship with people besides the child’s parents help to compensate for the parents’ fears and inadequacies.  The extended family situation offers a variety of inputs, points of view different from those of the parents that expand the child’s world and give him or her an enlarged perspective and a more realistic picture of life. 

An extended family structure can serve all the functions of the traditional nuclear family: long-standing affection, socialization of children, financial resources available in a crisis, and emotional support and guidance.  The pooling of wisdom and understanding in a larger group of people is far richer than what would be available in an individual nuclear family.  A nonexclusive and open family structure that includes others benefits all members. 

There is no organization or institution of any kind, including current family practices, that can substitute for personal, feelingful, and consistent, close relating to children. 

One noteworthy and very important advantage of an extended family situation or support system is that it At the same time, the circumstances are such that the needs of the child are still carefully and conscientiously attended to. 

Interactions with a number of individuals within an extended family system can disrupt an inward, isolated, protective orientation and challenge the narrow, stereotypic attitudes toward others often held by the family. 

Children in an extended family setting are also provided with relationships that are generally free of the proprietary interest most parents have in their children.  They tend to develop a sense of independence in their interactions with adults, rather than clinging to a toxic, over dependent relationship with one or both of their parents.  Moreover, other adults are more objective and freer to be a positive influence In the child’s life because they are not as prone to guilt reactions or anxieties as the natural parents.
Strong bonds and feelings of connection between parent and child are very often based more on the unfulfilled needs of the parent for love than on a genuine concern and affection for the child.  The desperation experienced by immature, emotionally hungry parents in relation to forming and preserving bonds with their children, in the proprietary sense of the word, is characteristic and has negative consequences for both parties in the contract. 

Another significant finding concerns the relative absence of this destructive form of bonding between adults and children who were not their own.  In most cases of foster parenting, there was less of a need to utilize the child in an exploitive or destructive manner.  The case studies and observations reported here have demonstrated that many parents who had a detrimental effect on their own children were capable of offering nurturance and warmth to other children.

The process of identifying emotional hunger in one or both parents has been valuable in itself and has provided them with a measure of control. 


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