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Family Centeredness: Do Your Children Feel Like They Belong?

Family Centeredness: Do Your Children Feel Like They Belong?

Family Centeredness: Do Your Children Feel Like They Belong?

They seemed like the perfect family. Mom and Dad were attentive parents who prioritized spending quality time with their two children, and they participated in all the best social emotional learning activities for kids. The children seemed happy and well-adjusted. Then, it happened.

The children were asked to draw a circle, put Mom and Dad in the center, and then draw themselves in the circle. It turned out that both children drew the same picture: One child was close to Mom and Dad in the center of the circle, but the other was way out there on the periphery, apart from everyone else. What did it mean?

Family Centeredness 

This simple drawing task is a reflection of a very important psychological factor called family centeredness. Family centeredness is the perception of belonging, feeling emotionally safe, and not feeling like an outsider in one’s primary childhood home environment. A child may feel loved by their parents and siblings and yet still feel like they somehow don’t belong. In the story above, one child feels safe and closely connected to Mom and Dad while the other feels like an outsider. 

A recent study involving over 1,700 participants investigated the relationship between Centeredness and several psychological factors in young adults. Centeredness was assessed using a brief, 20-item questionnaire that asked adults about their childhood relationships with primary caregivers and other household members. Here are examples of the items used in the centeredness questionnaire:

  1. After a bad day, I could count on my family to make me feel better.
  2. My family valued my input.
  3. When I was upset, I felt like my parents tried to find a way to be on my side.
  4. My parents mentioned ways they were proud of me to other people.
  5. My parents tried to understand how I was feeling by putting themselves in my shoes.

The results showed that higher Centeredness scores were associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer depression symptoms, suicidal thoughts, anxiety symptoms, and aggressive behavior. Centeredness scores were more predictive of these vital measures of psychological well-being than were three other standard measures of childhood experiences: attachment to caregivers, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and benevolent childhood experiences (BCEs). A brief overview of this approach to family-centeredness can be found here. (Note: The study is currently under peer review.)

Attachment to Caregivers and Life Outcomes

Centeredness is not the same thing as attachment, but the quality of parent-child attachment profoundly impacts long-term mental health. Here’s why:

The primary task of development from birth to about age 4 is developing a stable and emotionally healthy attachment to a caregiver, usually a parent. Building these social emotional skills for toddlers within this primary relationship and the quality of attachment during this period impacts the quality of an individual’s emotional relationships well into adulthood. That is why initial psychotherapy sessions usually are devoted to exploring the quality of the relationship the client had with their parents during this very important developmental period.

The standard way of measuring attachment in children is the Strange Situation Assessment. This assessment procedure was developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to assess the strength and quality of emotional attachment between caregivers and infants between the age of nine and 18 months. The essence of the procedure is to separate the caregiver from the child in the presence of a stranger and observe the child’s reaction. This occurs eight times, with each separation episode lasting about three minutes. The observer watches the child’s reaction through a one-way mirror and records the child’s reaction at each 15-second interval.  This is how it happens:

  1. The caregiver and baby are left alone in a room.
  2. A stranger joins the caregiver and baby.
  3. The caregiver leaves the baby and stranger alone.
  4. The caregiver returns and the stranger leaves.
  5. The caregiver leaves, and the baby is left alone in the room.
  6. The stranger returns.
  7. The caregiver returns and the stranger leaves.

This video shows an example of the Strange Situation Assessment.

Ainsworth identified three main attachment styles, which she referred to as secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure ambivalent/resistant. Here are the behaviors that Ainsworth observed when identifying these attachment styles:

A securely attached child becomes distressed when the caregiver leaves, is friendly to the stranger when the caregiver is present but avoidant when the caregiver leaves, and shows happiness when the caregiver returns. 

An insecurely avoidant-attached child shows no sign of distress when the caregiver leaves, is fine being alone with the stranger, and shows little interest when the caregiver returns.

An insecurely ambivalent-attached child is intensely distressed when the caregiver leaves, is frightened when left alone with the stranger, but resists contact and ignores or pushes the caregiver away when the caregiver returns.

A fourth attachment style known as disorganized was identified later by other researchers in which the child shows no coherent or consistent behavior during separation from and reunion with their caregiver. 

Ainsworth explained the origins of these different attachment styles in terms of “caregiver sensitivity”. Sensitive caregivers are responsive to the child’s emotional needs and assist in building social emotional skills for toddlers rather than ignoring them or punishing them. As a result, sensitive caregivers are more likely to have securely attached children. In contrast, caregivers who ignore or punish a child’s emotional needs are more likely to have insecurely attached children. 

In recent years, two other extreme forms of attachment disorders have been identified called reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED). Children with RAD don’t look for comfort from caregivers when they are upset and can be extremely difficult to calm when stressed. They may appear to be irritable, sad, or scared while having normal activities with their caregiver. In contrast, children with DSED show no fear of strangers, and will freely walk up to strangers to talk, hug them, or even go off with them. Children who suffer from these extreme forms of attachment disorders typically have suffered abuse or neglect from their caregivers, or have spent their early years in settings where it is difficult to form long-term stable attachments with a primary caregiver, such as orphanages or serial foster care. 

Subsequent research has repeatedly shown a relationship between the quality of romantic attachments adults form and the nature of their attachment to primary caregivers during childhood. Adults who were securely attached to their caregivers in childhood also showed a secure attachment style in adult romantic relationships, they were also more likely to be in a romantic relationship, and to be satisfied with that relationship.  On the other hand, adults who reported being insecurely attached to caregivers in childhood found romantic relationships to be more difficult, believed love was rare, and were more likely to divorce. 

ACEs and Life Outcomes

Centeredness is also distinct from ACEs. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood. The higher an individual’s ACEs score, the more difficult they may find it to stay in school, maintain a steady job, or maintain stable, healthy relationships. 

Health care providers have been advised to screen for ACEs using tools like this questionnaire for teens. These tools ask whether the individual experienced physical, verbal, or emotional abuse or neglect before the age of 18.  

Unfortunately, ACEs are common in the US. About 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before age 18, and nearly 20% reported experiencing four or more types of ACEs. According to some estimates, up to 1.9 million heart disease cases and 21 million depression cases can be attributed to ACEs.

BCEs and Life Outcomes

Centeredness is related to but distinct from BCEs. Benevolent childhood experiences BCEs are favorable childhood experiences that reflect love, predictability, and support. BCEs are strong predictors of resilience, health, and life satisfaction, and can reliably buffer the negative effects of ACEs.

Like ACEs, BCEs screening tools have been developed to measure an individual’s experiences with specific kinds of behaviors, such as

When you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

  1. Did you have at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe? 
  2. Did you have at least one good friend? 
  3. Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort? 
  4. Did you like school? 
  5. Did you have at least one teacher who cared about you? 
  6. Did you have good neighbors? 
  7. Was there an adult (not a parent/caregiver or the person from #1) who could

provide you with support or advice? 

  1. Did you have opportunities to have a good time? 
  2. Did you like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself? 
  3. Did you have a predictable home routine, like regular meals and a regular bedtime?

Ways to Ensure That Your Children Feel Centered in Your Family

The researchers who discovered the profound impact of centeredness on mental health provided one simple but powerful take-home message:

Rather than believing that you have to fix or correct the effects of adversity your children experience, parents should focus on strengthening what is already there: the emotional bonds you have with your children.

We can utilize social emotional learning activities for kids to achieve that goal! Here’s how:

Children feel centered in families and have a distinct since of belonging where they feel their unique identities, experiences, feelings, and beliefs are accepted and respected. They feel peripheralized to the extent that these crucial aspects of themselves mark them as “outsiders” in their own families.

A good place for parents to begin is to research more about social emotional learning on other blogs such as this. The more that you understand about your child’s social emotional development, the better equipped you are to guide them through life!

The next step is to answer the five sample Centeredness questions shown at the beginning of this article from the perspective of their own childhoods. The scale was specifically developed as a tool for current adults and parents to better understand their own emotional experiences and important relationships from childhood to strengthen their current emotional bonds with their children.

Next, answer the five questions from the perspective of each of your children. You may be surprised to discover that some questions stump you, or that it is easier for you to answer them for one child than for another.

Finally, focus on providing the following emotional support to your children to strengthen your emotional bond with them, and to help them feel seen, heard, and valued within the family:

  • Consistently support your children’s distress
  • Validate your children’s full range of emotions; don’t react with dismissiveness, hostility, or abuse
  • Value your children’s pursuits and accomplishments, and make sure that they know you value them

The Power of Social Emotional Learning Activities for Kids

Utilizing the social emotional learning activities for kids and parents we’ve discussed will help everyone in the family feel more centered, and when you feel more centered, your kids are likely to as well.

In fact, Zoy has a ton of resources to help you on your journey. You can visited our other social emotional learning blogs to get started. We’ve also created one of the new best mindfulness apps to help with this process! Feel free to download the new Zoy app to get started.

Perhaps the most important thing that caregivers can do to make sure that children feel centered in their own families is this: Unconditionally accept children’s identities and core beliefs, even if they differ from your own.


  • Dr. Denise D. Cummins

    Dr. Denise D. Cummins is cognitive scientist, author, and elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the Center for Adaptive Behavior at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. In her Psychology Today blog, Scientific American, NPR, and PBS NewHour articles, she writes about what she and other cognitive scientists are discovering about the way children and adults think, solve problems, and make decisions. Dr. Cummins also blogs about equestrian sports as The Thinking Equestrian.

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Dr. Denise D. Cummins
Author and Cognitive Scientist


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