Definition of a Nuclear Family: Understanding the Characteristics

Updated December 15, 2019
Nuclear family

The traditional definition of a nuclear family is a family unit that includes two married parents of opposite genders and their biological or adopted children living in the same residence. However, the term "nuclear family" can mean several things in today's society. Understanding the classic roles in this type of family and how it is defined, as well as how the definition of this family structure is evolving, can help you understand the relationships in your own family, whether it's nuclear or not.

History of the Nuclear Family

As reported by the Institute for Family Studies, the nuclear family was first recognized in the 13th century in England. At that point in time, couples were marrying late in life compared to before, and in many circumstances, their parents had already passed away. This led to a new couple forming their own household. This also decreased the number of children that each couple had, and higher values were placed on childhood education and parental-child connectedness.

Why the Nuclear Family Gained Popularity

According to the Institute for Family Studies, the nuclear family allowed for more flexibility in terms of career moves, which impacted a familial shift in America during the Industrial Revolution and made way for the middle class to form. At that time, industrial economic booms and rising wages made it possible for young parents to afford their own homes without living with extended family members. Better healthcare bolstered the nuclear family, as elderly members became more self-sufficient and independent for decades after their children were grown.

Modern Nuclear Family

Nuclear families have evolved over time, and the outdated concept of a nuclear family only including parents of opposite sexes is no longer seen as the norm. Today a nuclear family includes parents who identity as LGBTQ+. This means that parents in a nuclear family may or may not be legally married, but have chosen to raise a child or children together.

Characteristics of a Nuclear Family

Ideally, within a nuclear family, there are shared values, responsibilities, unconditional love, healthy attachment patterns, and an environment that supports growth and learning.

Who Is Part of a Nuclear Family?

There can be any number of children in the family, and one or both parents may work outside the home. Within a nuclear family there can be:

  • A mother and father
  • Parents who may identify as LGBTQ+
  • Biological or adopted children
  • Legally married parents, or parents who aren't married, but are committed to each other and their family

Understanding the Nuclear Family

Families are all unique, and regardless of whether they are considered nuclear, the most important value one can have is love. How each family encourages family values and connections varies, and there is no right or wrong family style.

Same sex couple with child

Pros and Cons of the Nuclear Family

Each family type will have pros and cons. A family adapts according to its size and needs, and just because a family may be defined as nuclear does not mean there aren't strong bonds with extended family members. The reverse is also true in that just because one may live with extended family does not guarantee stronger bonds with each other.

Changing Definition of Nuclear Families

The definition of the nuclear family is changing to better reflect the current, more inclusive societal shifts that have occurred. While the traditional definition of a nuclear family may have only included two parents of opposite sexes, today's definition includes parents who identify as LGBTQ+ who have biological or adopted children. This shift in meaning creates an opportunity for outdated definitions to make way for more inclusive familial terms.

Definition of a Nuclear Family: Understanding the Characteristics