Course on Nontraditional Families

MultiracialFor the past five or so years, I have been doing research in the area of adoptive families. My work culminated in a co-edited volume Working with adoptive parents: Research, theory, and therapeutic interventions. One discovery I made as part of my research was that mental health professionals receive negligible training in understanding adoptive families. One writer made the point that mental health professionals are far more likely to encounter members of the adoptive triad (birth parent, adoptive parent, adopted child) than schizophrenic individuals. Yet, students in mental health programs tend to receive far more training in working with the latter population. My first thought was that perhaps I could make a contribution to our Widener students by teaching a course on adoptive families. However, further contemplation revealed that what was true about adoptive families was also true about many types of nontraditional families—they obtain short shrift in graduate curricula in the mental health professions. I sought to remedy this circumstance in our own program in clinical psychology.

To determine the scope of the course, I needed to have a working definition of the nontraditional family. Within the family literature, the nontraditional family is any structure that departs from the 1950s’ ideal of the family with a father who is the primary breadwinner, the mother who is the primary caregiver, and their biological children. According to this gold standard of family life, the marital relationship was one of permanence. Even though the acknowledgment was ready that some families did depart from this mold, these deviations were seen as atypical and undesirable. Yet, over the latter half of the 20th century, a variety of sociopolitical forces led to the progressive diminishment of the traditional family and the rise of other common familial structures. These include: single-parent families, LGBTQ families, families created through Reproductive Assisted Technologies, families created by cohabitating parents, blended families, multiracial families, and yes, adoptive families. These types of families all had a place in my course, and for each, I described what kinds of challenges that type of family faced and what special resources it possessed to help it meet them.

On the first day of the course, I had students list all of the clients they were currently seeing in individual psychotherapy. I then had them describe each client’s family structure. My students were astonished to discover that the traditional family described either none of their clients or very few of them. I also encouraged them to think about how the family structure is connected to some of the issues being explored in treatment. The students found were able to establish these links easily even though they hadn’t previously thought about family structure as a relevant factor in the client’s clinical picture. This exercise provided an initial appreciation of the importance of context for understanding those with whom we worked, an appreciation that deepened throughout the course as we explored the different configurations through a variety of means—discussions, role plays, film analysis, and so on. In achieving a greater understanding of context, these psychologists-to-be came to recognize that their roles in the lives of their clients might be broader than what they had originally contemplated. For example, throughout the course, we talked about stigma and how psychologists can assist clients in developing the skills to cope with it.

That students would apply their new understandings from this course to their work in practicum and internship, and eventually their professional practices, seemed pretty likely to me. Yet, I saw potential for students’ using their perspectives and knowledge wrought from this course to function in the roles of leader, educator, and advocate, and to have a role in shaping public discourse. To develop this potential, I established as the culminating assignment for this course students’ development of their own webpages. Initially, this rather novel type of assignment was anxiety arousing but throughout the course, I had them do small bits of it and gradually, they saw it was manageable. I also created my own (rather primitive) website for the course and assured them that my technical competence was at best, modest. Students who have observed me in front of the classroom struggling to show a DVD know that this claim is true. Our librarian provided all of us with excellent training on such relevant topics as evaluating web pages and establishing what permissions are needed to use online material.

During our last class, amidst celebratory cupcakes, pretzels, and brownies, the pairs of students presented their websites. They shared their odysseys with this assignment, their dilemmas, their frustrations, and satisfactions. Their sense of mastery was palpable and I felt the thrill of their evident growth. Let me share with you one example of the students’ web pages.


– Dr. Virginia Brabender