The Moderating Role of Maternal Verbal Sensitivity in Linking Attachment Security with Preschoolers' Externalizing Behaviors
Methods: The study was a secondary data analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B). The ECLS-B employed a clustered, list frame design to select a nationally representative probability sample of children born in 2001 in the United States. We used the subsample of 800 randomly selected dyads for parent-child shared reading observations. Maternal verbal interactive behaviors were captured using the 32-item Reading Aloud Profile-Together (RAPT) coding. We applied three primary inclusion criteria: children with normal birth weights, children with no disability, and children with living with the same mother figure from the ninth month to the preschool data collection, resulting in 333 dyads. When statistical weights were applied, the population consisted of 2,207,339 dyads (mean age = 52.02 months, linearized SE = 0.24). Attachment security was measured by the Toddler Attachment Sort-45 developed for the ECLS-B (Andreassen & Fletcher, 2007). Externalizing behaviors were assessed using the 26-item socio-emotional measure developed for the ECLS-B. Both mothers and early care/education providers (ECEP) reported children’s behavior problems. Exploratory factor analyses resulted in the 5-item mother report and the 4-item ECEP report of externalizing behaviors. To test if there were discrete classes of mothers identified by different patterns of maternal verbalization, a latent class analysis was conducted. Regression analyses were conducted to examine the role of maternal verbal sensitivity after controlling for background characteristics. To address the complex sampling design attributes of the ECLS-B, Taylor Series linearization methods were applied in all analysis.
Results: The interaction of children’s attachment security and maternal verbal sensitivity was marginally significant for mother report (b = -.57, linearized SE = .32, p < .10) and significant for ECEP report (b = -1.20, linearized SE = .37, p < .01) of externalizing behaviors. Results indicated that externalizing behaviors of preschoolers with verbally sensitive mothers were lower independent of their attachment security at toddlerhood, while externalizing behaviors of preschoolers with verbally less sensitive mothers were negatively associated with attachment security.
Implications: The findings support the theoretical notion that internal working models of self with others are open to healthier revision in the context of mother-child communication. By verbally engaging with the child in regard to the child’s thoughts about experiences, maternal verbal sensitivity may provide the child opportunities to re-evaluate his or her experiences and hence construct healthier foundation of expectations about and approaches to the social world. The applicability of these findings was also discussed for social work practice.