A common practice among American Indian (AI) families, as well as many ethnic minority families, is involving both nuclear and extended family members in raising children. This practice is believed to serve as a protective factor for families against negative outcomes and provide a potential avenue for social support. Several authors have described extended family members being involved in helping to care taking, sharing cultural knowledge and customs, and disciplining youth. As a result, it has been proposed that extended family members help to nurture the parent-child relationship and provide various forms of support to parents. Despite this, the available research with AI families has been limited to specific examinations of their involvement as custodial guardians or in providing kinship care. Given the various roles extended family members play in children’s development, an examination of types of support and impact of support is warranted. The purpose of the current study is to examine how extended family members help support families. Specifically, the study will gain information from the perspectives of caregivers and extended family members on their specific roles in supporting parents and helping to raise children. Qualitative data revealed a broad definition of family which included biological and non-biological family members who help to raise children. Several themes concerning extended family involvement emerged from interviews with caregivers and family members including teaching and reinforcing cultural knowledge and shaping children’s behaviors, for example. Their definitions and perspective are much broader than originally discussed in extant literature. Extended family members described their involvement as providing them a new sense of purpose and helping to keep them active. Findings support and extend previous literature on the involvement of extended family by describing their role in the family and the impact of their involvement. Clinical implications include encouraging clinicians to consider engaging family members actively involved in raising children in helping to deter problematic behavior. Future directions for research are discussed.

Key Take Away Points

  • Older, traditional models of family structure do not reflect practices of minority families, especially American Indian families, in helping to raise children.
  • Participants identified both nuclear and extended family members as well as tribal elders and community members as significantly involved in various ways.
  • These members held specific roles in the family and were revered with respect and authority.
  • Practices were passed down to next generation and helped to shape extended family members' lives.

Author Biography

Ashleigh Coser, Ph.D. completed her graduate training at Oklahoma State University in 2018. She is currently working for Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as a licensed health service psychologist. Her program of research includes the examination of the parent-child relationship among American Indian families and the measurement of AI ethnic identity. Maureen Sullivan, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Oklahoma State University and served as Dr. Coser's faculty advisor and graduate mentor. Her research interests include examining effective parenting strategies and child misbehavior in early childhood, including among American Indian families. In addition, she has publications on children and their families' adjustment to natural disaster. Hannah Espeleta, M.S. is a doctoral student in the Clinical Psychology program at Oklahoma State University. Ms. Espeleta conducts research in collaboration with the OU Children’s Hospital at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC), examining Pediatric Medical Homes for youth in foster care. Ms. Espeleta’s research interests surround child abuse and neglect prevention and intervention efforts within hospital settings as well as cultural adaptations of these interventions. Hannah is currently completing her clinical internship at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).


The authors would like to thank the families who participated in this study for sharing their stories and lived experience. It was an honor to speak with these families and we hope this manuscript sheds light on unique attributes of these families and how family has shaped their lives. The primary author would also like to thank Jenny Daer Shields, Ph.D. for her involvement in the project and helping to code interviews.