Definition of Extended Families: Meanings and Roles

Updated December 6, 2019
Portrait Of Extended Family Group In Park

A definition of extended families is simply a family unit that extends past the nuclear family to include other relatives such as aunts, uncles, and grandparents. There is more to an extended family, however, than just a list of relatives, and understanding the structure of an extended family and why it can be a valuable type of family unit can help you better understand your own family structure.

What Does Extended Family Mean?

An extended family can also be called a complex family, joint family, or multi-generational family. In most cultures, the "core" of the family is the nuclear family, the parents and their children, while additional relatives are considered "extended." This type of family unit has multiple relatives or close friends other than just the parents and their children living in the same household or keeping close ties and taking on responsibilities for that household. The key characteristic of the extended family is that there are multiple adults in the family that are not parents of the children, though they may also have parent-like family roles and share in the responsibilities for providing for the whole family, either by contributing financially or in other ways. These extended family members could include aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives.

Modified Extended Family Definition

Thanks to technology, family members living far away from each other can now contribute to the care of extended family members from afar with ease. A modified extended family, or dispersed extended family, includes family members who don't live in the same household, or even the same area, but keep close ties with each other. These types of extended families may include one or more members who regularly send money to each other.

Extended Family Members

In most modern extended families, only one married couple per generation lives in the home, although there are plenty of examples of multiple married couples and their children living together. Young married couples without children may also continue to live as part of an extended family until they have their own children and are better able to move out on their own. Every extended family can be different, and the relatives or near-relatives who are part of a multi-generational family in addition to the parents and their children (either biological, adopted, or foster) might include:

  • Grandparents
  • Great-grandparents
  • Aunts
  • Uncles
  • Cousins
  • Nieces
  • Nephews
  • In-laws
  • Close friends
  • Close co-workers

Extended Family Member Roles

No matter who is a member of the extended family, there is often only one head of the household for family groups living together. Depending on the size of the family and the roles each member plays, that leader may be the oldest, most senior family member, or the most prominent breadwinner who contributes a significant portion of the family's finances. Another way to determine the head of the household is by whose home it was initially; a young couple living in a parent's home will see the older generation as the heads of household, whereas a grandparent who moves into her son or daughter's home will see her child as the head of the household.

Grandparents taking selfie with granddaughter in restaurant

Why Extended Families Exist

The extended family is the basic family unit and is quite common in southern and eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America, but it is less common in western Europe and North America. The reasons for extended families to be so prominent vary, and some factors are cultural; for example, it may be considered inappropriate for adult children to leave their parents' home until they have children of their own. Some families may have several adult children still residing at home, providing parent-like role models to younger siblings. Other reasons for extended families to thrive include:

  • Economics: With more adults living as part of the same family unit, the entire family may be in a better financial situation with more individuals contributing to living costs. Some family members may be able to provide care for young children in this arrangement, eliminating child care costs as well.
  • Health: When an older family member needs regular care, it is common for that individual to move in with his children or other relatives. This can be an alternative to nursing home care or assisted living facilities.
  • Divorce: After a divorce, the now-divorced parents may return to their parents' homes, often bringing their children along. This may be a temporary arrangement or could be a long-term living situation, often depending on finances, career changes, child care, and other factors.

Benefits of Extended Families

Whatever the reason for an extended family to exist, it can be a great arrangement for all the family members. The benefits of an extended family include:

happy multi-cultural family on porch
  • Greater security for family members to feel connected
  • Greater financial security with multiple working adults
  • Increased sharing of cultural and cross-generational family values
  • More role models for younger family members

Famous Examples of Extended Families

Examples of extended families are all around in real life and fictional life in books, on TV, or in movies.

  • While the families on the TV show Modern Family don't all live in the same house, they are a good example of a modified extended family because they keep close ties while living apart.
  • The TV show Full House featured Danny living with his brother-in-law, his best friend, and his three daughters. Eventually his brother-in-laws wife moved in too and they had two kids who also lived in the home.
  • Tia and Tamera are twins who were separately adopted but eventually come to live together with Tia's adoptive mom and Tamera's adoptive dad, who aren't dating, in the TV show Sister, Sister.
  • On the Disney show Raven's Home, Raven lives with her two kids, her best friend, and her best friend's son.
  • TV shows like Friends and Grey's Anatomy show great examples of extended families that don't include many blood relatives. These people spend so much time together and support each other in a variety of ways, they consider themselves a family.
  • The McCallisters from the Home Alone movies frequently vacation together and obviously keep close ties as an example of a modified extended family.
  • In the book and movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie lives with his parents and both sets of his grandparents.
  • In the Harry Potter books, Harry lives with his Aunt, Uncle, and cousin at their house.
  • The TV show Two and a Half Men showed Alan living with his son and Alan's brother.

Positive Family Experience

An extended family includes multiple adults and kids or multiple generations of a family living in the same household or keeping very close ties. While it may have challenges for authority figures and balancing resources, it can also be a wonderful experience to be part of a close-knit, loving family with different relatives and generations.

Definition of Extended Families: Meanings and Roles