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Can Close Friends Substitute for Family?

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Remember Uncle Joey on Full House? Who was he anyway? He did Popeye impersonations and helped with homework. The kids loved him as much as their blood relative Uncle Jesse. And it appears a lot of people relate to the Tanner family. When we asked our Facebook fans “Do your kids call anyone who isn't a biological relative an aunt, uncle, or cousin?” we got a whopping 800-plus likes and 306 comments in one day. “Our handpicked family is more dependable than the ‘real deal,’” commented Jennifer O.

“Adopted” family members may be childhood friends, college roommates, or neighbors. Take me, for example. I'm an only child. It felt so natural that my BFF would be “aunt” that I announced my first pregnancy by telling her “Your daughter is going to be a cousin!” Aunt Camille and Uncle Michael, with whom I share zero DNA, have been there for birthdays, a hurricane evacuation, basketball games, and hospital stays. On a recent cruise, our kids posed together for a portrait. It hangs in both our homes. The kids are relaxed, beaming, natural. Cousins.

Today's parents seem to embrace honorary designations. And to kids they signal: Here's someone you can trust. “Those titles feed connection, which we often lack in our culture, when you may not know who lives on your block,” says Lisa Saponaro, Ph.D., a psychologist in Plantation, FL. They can also help add meaning to children's lives. “Part of your job is to help your child understand the big picture,” says Merry Lambert, a family therapist in Woodland Hills, CA. “Those terms can act as road markers, showing how everyone fits together.”

And for kids who are distanced from biological relatives—due to either geography or lack of involvement—naming alternates teaches them they're not helpless. “Say a cousin is bossy, but you put up with him because he's family,” says Amy Morin, a social worker and foster parent in Lincoln, ME. “That's not a good model for children.” If you don't have people lifting you up, find support elsewhere. “It's empowering to know you can choose your family,” says Morin.

But relatives can get peeved. Brandy J. confessed on Face-book: “Childish as it seems, it bugged me when a friend got the title ‘aunt’ when my nephew was born.” For that situation, “explain that you don't mean any disrespect,” says Lambert. “Say ‘You have a unique relationship with my kid, so let's find a unique name for you.’” Totti, Bubi, Nonni—let the kid get creative. If resistance comes from your child, “don't impose your agenda,” insists Lambert. “When a child feels heard, there's a better outcome.”

So how do experts define family? “It's people with a secure attachment to your child,” Lambert says. Our Facebook fans agreed. For Emily A., it's “the people you drop everything for, who are there for you no matter what.” Amen to that.