Development and Psychopathology

Research Article

Attachment in preschoolers with disruptive behavior: A comparison of clinic-referred and nonproblem children

Matthew L. Speltza1, Mark T. Greenberga1 and Michelle Deklyena1

a1 University of Washington


This study tested the hypothesis that preschool-aged children with significant externalizing behavior problems are more likely to have insecure attachment relationships than nonproblem peers, as measured by separation/ reunion behavior at the time of clinic referral. Fifty children (ages 3–6) and their mothers participated: 25 referred to a child psychiatry clinic for one of the DSM-III-R Disruptive Behavior Disorders, and 25 matched comparison children without behavior problems. Using two new attachment coding systems for children of this age, we found that 84% of the children in the clinic group were classified as insecure, whereas only 28% of the comparison group were so classified (p <.001). Clinic children were also found more frequently to protest their mother's departure and to search for her more often during the separation. The implications of these results for the validity of separation/reunion behavior as an index of attachment at this age are discussed, as well as the methodological and conceptual problems that complicate our study of the link between attachment and behavior disorder.