Coercive Attachment Style, Permissive Parenting Practices, and Marital Dissatisfaction Significantly Predict Externalizing Behaviors in Preschoolers Ages 2-5.

Using the Externalizing Scale of the CBCL as a dependent measure, DeVito and Hopkins (2001) reported that preschoolers are likely to manifest externalizing behavior problems when their parents are experiencing marital problems, when parents vacillate between being overly permissive and overly punitive, and when parents’ relationships with their children are characterized by arguing, teasing, and challenging. The sample consisted of 60 preschoolers drawn from an outpatient psychiatry department, a behaviorally-based parent-child treatment center, and the general community. Using Crittenden’s (1994) Preschool Assessment of Attatchment (PAA), attachment style was coded into 3 categories: (a) coercive, which referred to a mix of coy/disarming behavior and resisting/threatening behavior on the part of the child, but which also included the parent’s participation in conflict with the child; (b) balanced, which referred to secure and reciprocal attachment behavior; and (c) defended, which referred to avoidant and inhibited attachment behavior. Scores on “authoritative,” “permissive,” and “authoritarian” parenting scales were derived from reports on the Parenting Practices Questionnaire (PPQ) (Robinson, Mandleceo, Olsen, & Hart, 1995).

Marital satisfaction was assessed with the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS) (Spanier, 1976). Mean CBCL Externalizing T-score for the 21 coercive dyads was 65 (clinical range), whereas scores were in the normal range (50, 53) for the 27 balanced and 18 defended dyads. Regression analysis indicated that coercive attachment style, high marital dissatisfaction, and permissive and authoritarian parenting styles accounted for 41% of the variance in CBCL Externalizing scores, after controlling for SES. Permissive and authoritarian parenting styles were positively correlated and tended to be associated with lower marital satisfaction.

However, attachment style was not significantly associated with parenting style or with marital satisfaction. A significant negative correlation between SES and Externalizing score was found, but the clinic samples were of significantly lower SES than the community sample, resulting in a confounding of SES and referral status. In addition, SES was highly skewed (33 of 60 children were in the highest SES level). A strength of the study is its focus on parenting factors and relationship factors as important determinants of externalizing problems in young children. However, the confounding of referral status and SES may have inflated the correlation between SES and Externalizing score.

Reference: DeVito, C., & Hopkins, J. (2001) Attachment, parenting, and marital dissatisfaction as predictors of disruptive behavior in preschoolers. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 215-231.

Spanier, G. B. (1976). Measuring dyadic adjustment: New scales for assessing the quality of marriage and similar dyads. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 38(1), 15-28.