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George W. Doherty, M.S., LPC

Until recently, extended family systems have not been the focus of as much empirical research as has the nuclear family. There has been a growing tendency to view the nuclear family as merely a fragment of the extended family system. The implication has been that in order to fully understand, evaluate and treat a nuclear family unit, it is necessary to know something about the extended family system. The focus is on the extended family as a structural phenomenon in its own right. It is important to know if this structure provides a mechanism of social/emotional support. It is also important to know if there are differences in this regard between different cultural groups. As used here, "extended family system" refers to that network of relatives including grandparents, aunts and uncles, married sisters and brothers and their children.

Study of extended families helps demonstrate how people in families help and support each other to enhance each person's sense of well-being. In developing better mental health services, it is vital to have knowledge of how people actually deal with personal, family and collective problems and crises. Ultimately, the consequence of supporting existing extended family networks or of helping to restructure those that have become weak is to make people and communities better able to deal with ongoing problems and change through their own collective efforts. Hopefully, as a result, they will utilize professional expertise in a more selective and effective way.

Many different racial/ethnic groups have an extended family system. However, how that system works and the extent to which it has survived in the United States varies among the different groups. One group which is indigenous to the southwest is the Mexican American or Chicano. They have been viewed historically as an ethnic group which is characterized by a familistic orientation toward life. This includes a tendency to have large, integrated extended families (Ramirez, 1981). Anglo families and, to a lesser degree, Black families are generally seen as having more nuclear-oriented than extended families.

Keefe, Padilla and Carlos (1978) compared the nature of emotional systems among Chicanos and Anglos. They interviewed Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans in Southern California. They found that Anglos who do not have relatives in town go to friends for help more often than Anglos who have relatives nearby. Those with relatives in town were found to rely on relatives more than those without relatives nearby. Mexican Americans, on the other hand, were found to consult with relatives whether or not they had relatives in town.

"Thus, Mexican Americans consistently rely on relatives most often for emotional support regardless of their geographic accessibility, while Anglos turn to friends more often than to relatives when kin are inaccessible and equally as often when kin are present.... Anglos lack a preference for familial support." (Keefe, et al., 1978, p. 39).

Wagner and Schaffer (1980) obtained similar results in a report on two research projects on the social networks and survival strategies of Mexican American, Black and Anglo female family heads in San Jose, California. In the first project, Wagner and Schaffer studied the role of the kinship network. They found that "the proximity of the barrios offered social and economic resources, primarily family members of the Mexican American women who were not available to the same extent for the Anglo and Black single women" (p. 180). They reported that 10% of the Mexican American women had no relatives living in San Jose. This contrasts sharply with a figure of 60% or more among the Anglos and Blacks sampled. Mexican American women averaged eleven relatives living in the city. Anglos and Blacks averaged only about four. Black and Anglo women had been forced to rely on non-kin sources of aid to a greater extent than the Chicanos. This was because they did not have comparably large kinship networks in the community. The authors pointed out that cultural differences may be a factor. This was because the Anglo and Black women didn't choose to live as close to their relatives to the same extent as did the Chicanos.

The second project reported by Wagner and Schaffer (1980) dealt with a group of female family heads whose length of residence in San Jose was less than three years. They reported that "for emotional and social support, Mexican Americans reported turning to relatives, even though they lived in an environment that provided an unusually high proportion of single parent friends" (p. 186). Black mothers, in contrast, were highly dependent on the friendship networks developed within the apartment complex in which they lived.

Mindel (1980) supports the findings of the above studies. His work, based on data collected in 1974, reported on a comparative study of extended familism among urban Mexican Americans, Anglos and Blacks in Kansas City, Missouri. His findings on extended family integration confirm the findings of Keefe et al. (1978). That is, Chicanos exhibit the highest levels of extended familism and Anglos the lowest, with Blacks falling between. Blacxks were found to maintain the most functional relationships with their kin. They were followed closely by Chicanos, with Anglos trailing far behind. Mindel analyzed the effects of urban migration and found that:

"...Anglos who have migrated to this urban area have few kin present, indicating movement away from their relatives. In the case of Mexican Americans, migration appears to be toward areas where kin already are present; the migration process is carried on within the context of the kinship network. Blacks, as before, appear to fall somewhere in between, not as separate from their relatives as Anglos, but not as immersed into the kinship network as the Mexican Americans" (p. 29).

There is a fundamental difference in the local kinship structures of Chicanos and Anglos. If they have any at all, Anglos tend to have a very limited local extended family. However, Chicanos tend to have kin groups which are comprised of large numbers of local households which are well integrated and encompass three or more generations. Blacks tend to fall somewhere between the Anglo and Chicano groups.

Chicanos consistently prefer and receive substantial familial support over alternative sources of support. In order to do this, they choose to live near relatives. Anglos, on the other hand, lack a preference for familial support. They tend to have a very limited local extended kin group available.

The implications of the above to U.S. society are speculative at present. Some family therapists (Kerr, 1974; Bowen, 1978) believe that nuclear families who have attempted to isolate themselves from the family of origin by means of physical distance are like pressure cookers with no outlet valves.

"It is as if the emotional energy that was once invested in the extended family now all goes into the nuclear family with a corresponding increase in conflict, symptoms, or vulnerability to stress in the nuclear family unit" (Kerr, 1974, p. 52).

Bowen (1978) views the geographical distribution of extended kin as a potentially important factor in the effectiveness of a family support system in serving its emotional support function. Ramirez (1981) suggests that there is a relationship between having an integrated extended family available and the mental health of individual members. More specifically, Ramirez believes that the larger and geographically closer is the extended family, the better is a person's mental health (as measured by a three-item symptom score).

The family (extended or nuclear) may be an endangered species in the future in the United States. Attitudes toward family life are undergoing significant changes. The 1980 White House Conference on Families reported a U.S. Department of Labor survey that revealed that only 10% of all American families fit the traditional picture of a bread-earning father, a home-making mother and two children.

In 1900, only five million American women were employed. Today, more than 38 million women are employed and 14% of them, almost 5.5 million, have children under the age of 6. It has been estimated that, in less than 10 years, two-thirds of all married women under 55 will be employed and the traditional image of a mother as a woman who stays home to look after her children will apply to only one-quarter of the estimated 44.4 million married mothers (White House Conference on Families, 1980). The impact of this alone, not to mention other societal changes, will have a tremendous effect on the extended family. If, indeed, the mental health of the individual is increased by the presence of an extended familial support system, then what effect will changes in society in general and the work force in particular have on this system? What are the characteristics of rural vs urban-oriented families and what is the prognosis for their future? What stressors in the environment threaten the security of the extended family and how can they be alleviated? How do families cope with the conflicting demands of work and family responsibilities? What are some of the difficulties encountered by working mothers? Does the extended family have a future? How do different racial/ethnic groups cope with our changing society?

These and other questions need empirical answers and practical suggestions. More research is needed in these areas, especially regarding the differences and changes in stressors affecting rural and urban families and different racial/ethnic groups who are just beginning to experience what the United States is to them.


Bowen, M. Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson, 1978.

Gallup Survey Data: White House Conference on Families, 1980. American Research Corporation, Box 7849, New Port Beach, California 92660.

Keefe, E., Padilla, M. and Carlos, L. Emotional support systems in two cultures: A comparison of Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans. Los Angeles: Spanish Speaking Mental Health Research Center, UCLA, Occasional Paper No. 7, 1978.

Kerr, E. The importance of the extended family. In F.D. Andres and J.P. Lorio (Eds.) Georgetown Family Symposia, Volume I (1971-1972): A collection of selected papers. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, Family Section, 1974.

Mindel, H. Extended familism among urban Mexican Americans, Anglos and Blacks. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 1980, 2, (1), 21-34.

Ramirez, O. Chicano, Anglo and Black extended families. Texas Psychologist, 1981, 33 (2), 5-8.

Ramirez, O. Extended family phenomena and mental health among urban Mexican Americans. Reston, Virginia: Latino Institute, Monograph No. 3, 1981.

Wagner, R.M. and Schaffer, D.M. Social networks and survival strategies: An exploratory study of Mexican American, Black and Anglo female family heads in San Jose, California. In M.B. Melville (Ed.) Twice a minority: Mexican American Women. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1980.

Work and Families: The White House Conference on Families: A report to Corporate leaders on the White House Conference on Families. Prepared by the J.C. Penney Company, Inc. Public Affairs Department for the White House Conference on Families, 1980.