What Makes a Family? A Counselor’s Thoughts on Family and Love

family-875By Sabrina Bong Bartels — When my cousin got married last July, she not only gained a wonderful husband, but two adorable stepchildren as well.


Both kids are young – around elementary school age – and both were ecstatic when my cousin married their dad. However, the transition has not been easy.

My cousin has been receiving some backlash from various people about her stepchildren. The rude comments range from “Why haven’t you had your own kids?” to “What makes you think you can raise someone else’s kids?” The kids, meanwhile, are caught in the middle of a nasty custody battle and feel just as out of place as my cousin. As my cousin told me, “They wonder who in this world actually loves them.”

I was so upset when I heard about my cousin’s situation, but it is sadly something that I see at a daily basis at my school. I would estimate that over half of my students come from a different family circumstance. Some of my students come from single parent homes, where one parent is absent due to death, incarceration, or abandonment. A number of my students come from divorced families. A few of my students do not live with either parent; instead, they reside with a grandparent or another relative. We have students who are adopted, students who are in foster care, and students who are living in a homeless shelter (with or without mom and dad.)

When I took my class on multiculturalism, we discussed how to use inclusive language to make everyone feel comfortable, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or gender. For example, we talked about saying “significant other” to a man instead of “girlfriend,” which assumes that he wants an opposite gender partner. However, the same concept can be applied when talking to students about their families. Saying “mom” or “dad” assumes that my student knows, has contact with, or lives with them. It discriminates against those who lives with grandma or grandpa or other relatives.

When I first became a counselor, this was a huge switch for me. I am adopted, but I know (for the most part) the reasons behind my adoption. My parents are together. Out of all my really close friends, only one or two come from divorced families. I had never been exposed to so many different family units. Once I was, I became acutely aware of what language I used around my students. Instead of “mom” or “dad”, I ask if I can speak to their guardian. I follow my student’s lead; one of my students prefers to call her adoptive mother by her first name. I make an effort to learn the intricacies of my students’ families and do my best to remember them. I remember thinking that me making these subtle changes to the way I address my students’ family situations  would make my students feel worse, like I was picking them out and making them feel even more unusual than they may already. But I was wrong. I think my students genuinely appreciate the fact that I (and other counselors) make the effort to get to know them on this kind of personal level.

Easter is a precious holiday when we get the chance to spend time with our families and friends, regardless of who makes up those groups. I hope you all had a blessed Easter surrounded by those who love you the most!

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