The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Nuclear Family

What is a nuclear family?

A nuclear family is generally thought of as a traditional family, with a mother, father, and at least one child, who live in the same household.  A nuclear family may also be referred to as a traditional, conjugal, or elementary family.  In a nuclear family, the parents might be the biological parents of the children or adopted children.  Also, one or both parents may work in a nuclear family.

Why is it important to understand what a nuclear family is for divorced parents?

For divorced parents, one of the concerns is how the children will cope with being raised with parents in different homes.  Significant child-custody challenges can plague a divorced family with children, and there have been numerous studies that show multiple negative effects that are correlated with children of divorce, when compared to nuclear families.

What the advantages of a nuclear family compared to a divorced family?

It is generally accepted that a nuclear family is a family structure that it provides a stable environment for children to be raised.  It leads to steady surroundings for the child to be exposed to, and is considered normal by mainstream society.

The traditional line of thinking about a nuclear family is that it is headed by the father, but the mother and they share equal privileges in decision-making.   Another assumption about a nuclear family is that the first child eventually becomes the head in the family.

Because of the rise in the number of divorces and the way society has evolved with regard to alternative relationships, nuclear families represent a smaller percentage of the family types than they did in the past.  Single-parent families, cohabiting families and blended families (step families) are other family types that may exist due to a divorce or separation.

There are several differences that divorced families should consider when they compare themselves to nuclear families.  These are as follows:

With both parents in the same household, there is typically one parent available to help the children when they need help.  The level of support in a nuclear family is high compared to divorced parents.

The logistics of being in the same household makes communication easy and natural.  Nuclear families are typically able to all be in touch with whatever issues are affecting other family members.  In divorced families, communication is more difficult, and sometimes one parent is out of touch with what is happening with their children.

Living in one household allows for shared finances between both parents.  This allows much more disposable income to be used on the children's behalf, compared to divorced families.

In a nuclear family, each of the family members is able to bond deeply with other family members.  With divorced families, bonding requires more effort to maintain.  Divorced families require carefully scheduling parenting time, and they may use tools such as virtual visitation to promote bonding.

Nuclear families typically adapt to the beliefs and values of other family members.  In divorced families, differences in beliefs and values can lead to conflict if not planned appropriately.

How do children adapt away from a nuclear family following a divorce?

When children first learn about divorce, many questions go through their mind.  Whether they are aware of it or not, what they are wondering is how their new life will compare to the life they had while living in a nuclear family.  Children will wonder:


  • Which parent will I live with?
  • What school will I go to?
  • Where will my other parent live?
  • What will happen to my friends?
  • What activities will I no longer be able to do?

Each of these questions addresses something that is essence of what is important to children: stability.  A nuclear family is typically stable.  Children can take that stability for granted when the family is under one roof.  But when that ends, stability ends with it, and it is up to the parents to collaborate and smooth the transition, in order to keep the children from suffering effects that can last a lifetime.

What are some of the effects that children of divorce experience, compare to children living in nuclear families?

Research has shown that children of divorce are prone to several negative effects; however, it would be a mistake to simply assume that divorce leads children down a path of self destruction, while children in nuclear families are bound to enjoy happiness and success.  It doesn't work that way.

Some of the negative effects that studies have shown a strong correlation with children of divorce are:


  • Higher instances of substance abuse;
  • Higher instances of teenage sexual activity;
  • Lower grades;
  • Increases instances in dropping out of school;
  • Decreased self-esteem;
  • Fewer friends;
  • An increased likelihood that the children will commit a crime;

While these issues may look awful, a few points should first be noted.  One point is that if some of these effects happen, the odds are that others will happen, as well.  For example, it is hard to imagine a "straight A" student who is liked by all his piers, being a criminal and dropping out of school.  It can happen, but the chances are that a child either goes almost entirely down the bad path or almost entirely up the good path.  

This creates an insight that applies to almost all people: success leads to more success, and conversely failure leads to more failure.  To combat this, it becomes extremely important to recognize early when a child is prone to heading down that wrong path.  If not caught early, the effects can spiral downward, leading to more and more negative effects.

It typically happens that a nuclear family is much better at seeing this happening and working as a team to stop it.  The barriers of having to communciate with another parent in another home, and possibly having to address high-conflict parenting issues, is not an issue for nuclear families.  In a divorced family, communication may be a big obstacle, and conflict may be so elevated that the parents cannot effectively work as a team to stop their children from making the negative decisions that are about to make.

How can parents prevent negative divorce effects on children if they are not in a nuclear family?

The age where children have the negative effects may be assumed to be in adolescence, but in fact, they often begin much earlier than that.  They begin when parents are no longer able to instill a feeling of love and respect for their parents in their children.  The effects may manifest in adolescence, but they have been brewing far longer.

This brings up a point that all parents should consider, whether married or divorced.  When children are stressed about the very things that matter to them, the ability to get good grades, to be likable, and to make good decisions, becomes much more difficult for them.  In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, you may recall that the pyramid proceeds in the order of:


  1. Psychological (Food and water.  Shelter.)
  2. Safety (Security and stability)
  3. Belonging (Feeling loved)
  4. Self-esteem (A feeling of confidence.  Feeling respected.)
  5. Self-actualization (Morality. Decision-making. Creativity)

The idea is that a person cannot focus on #2 until the needs in #1 are met.  They cannot focus on #3 until the needs of #2 are met.  While Maslow's model is a greatly simplified perspective of how human-beings really behave, it does illustrate that it is difficult to focus on certain aspects of life, while neglecting other, more fundamental needs.

When faced with avoiding bad decisions, there is one single factor that is often most likely to prevent the bad decision from being made: loss.

Loss aversion is an extremely powerful motivator for many decisions we make.  When we feel like a we will lose something important to us if we do not behave in a certain way, we will typically adjust to prevent whatever that perceived loss is.  People are very prone to loss aversion.

If a teenager is told, "If you get all A's this year, we will buy you a car," they some might try to get straight A's.  If those same teenagers already have a car and are told, "If you do not get straight A's, you will lose the car," significantly more of them will strive to get straight A's.

When if comes to the more difficult decisions like drugs and pier pressure, loss aversion is typically the difference-maker.  If the child thinks they are about to lose something that matters to them deeply, they are much less likely to risk losing it.

But what is it they need to feel like they will lose if they might lose if the go down the wrong path?  The things they need to feel like the will lose, are things at all.  The are intangible feelings of love, respect, and trust that have been built up over their entire childhood.  By showing them every day how much you love them, and by letting them know how much their potential bad decisions would destroy that, they are significantly less likely to risk it.  If family matters to the children, and they feel like these bad decisions would mean losing the love that that family provides, they are armed with something extremely powerful that will help them fight pier pressure.

More nuclear families are able to instill those feelings of love and respect in their children, than divorced families.  Divorced families can do it, but they have to work harder at it, which is why co-parenting and parallel parenting styles of collaborative parenting are so important.


What is a nuclear family
Wikipedia explains what a nuclear family is, and how it relates to other family structures.
Pros and cons of a nuclear family
Nuclear families have the benefit of strength and stability, but are their bad sides to a nuclear family?

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