Family Systems: Definition and Types

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  • 0:01 Family
  • 1:15 Nuclear Family
  • 2:08 Matrifocal Family
  • 3:23 Extended Family
  • 4:15 Blended Family
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. In this lesson, we'll examine what makes a family, as well as some common types of families, including nuclear, matrifocal, extended, and blended families.


Kayla is a happy, healthy kindergartener. She's growing and learning every day. When she was a baby, she couldn't do much but cry and eat. But now, she can run and skip and count and even read a few words. She can talk to her mother about things because she can speak in full sentences. She's come a long way since she was a baby!

In the first eight years of life, children grow and develop in many different ways. They get bigger and learn to walk, which is part of their physical development. They learn to speak and read, which show language development. Socio-emotional development leads them to being able to understand their own emotions and those of others.

All development is a combination of genetics and environment. Partly, children develop because they are hardwired to do so. But they also grow and learn because the people around them are able to support them in it. And because of the amount of time spent with them, a child's family is a central part of his or her development. But family is much more than just the people someone lives with. Let's look closer at several types of family systems: nuclear family, matrifocal families, extended families, and blended families.

Nuclear Family

When I say 'family,' what did you picture? If you're like a lot of people, you probably pictured a mother, a father, and children who are not yet adults. That's what Kayla's family used to be like; her father and mother and she all lived together when she was a baby.

A family consisting of a mother, a father, and underage children is called a nuclear family. Traditionally, nuclear families were seen as the best option. People believed that children who grew up in a heterosexual, two-parent family were the happiest and most well-adjusted children.

However, studies have shown that nuclear families are no better or worse than many other types of families. It is really about the family itself, not what makes up the family. A happy, healthy single-parent family can be more beneficial to a child's development than a nuclear family that is made up of unhappy or abusive members.

Matrifocal Family

Kayla's family used to be nuclear, but when she was four, her father was in a car crash and died. Now it's just Kayla and her mother. They're doing okay, but they are no longer a nuclear family.

A family consisting of a mother and her children is called a matrifocal family. You can remember the word 'matrifocal' by thinking about 'matri-,' which means 'mother.' The matrifocal family centers around, or is focused on, the mother. Matrifocal families are more common than patrifocal families, or families consisting of a father and his children. Partly, this is because in divorce, mothers have traditionally gotten custody of the children.

Divorce or death can create a matrifocal family through making a woman a single mom, but traditional nuclear families can also be matrifocal if the father is away from home for extended periods of time. A man who is gone for months at a time, perhaps due to work obligations, might be in a two-parent family, but it is matrifocal because of the absence of the father. Like a nuclear family, a matrifocal family can be a positive or a negative influence on a child. It really depends on the members of the family and how they interact.

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