Background Little is known about the relative effects of exposure to postnatal depression and parental conflict on the social functioning of school-aged children. This is, in part, because of a lack of specificity in the measurement of child and parental behaviour and a reliance on children's reports of their hypothetical responses to conflict in play.
Methods In the course of a prospective longitudinal study of children of postnatally depressed and well women, 5-year-old children were videotaped at home with a friend in a naturalistic dressing-up play setting. As well as examining possible associations between the occurrence of postnatal depression and the quality of the children's interactions, we investigated the influence of parental conflict and co-operation, and the continuity of maternal depression. The quality of the current mother–child relationship was considered as a possible mediating factor.
Results Exposure to postnatal depression was associated with increased likelihood, among boys, of displaying physical aggression in play with their friend. However, parental conflict mediated the effects of postnatal depression on active aggression during play, and was also associated with displays of autonomy and intense conflict. While there were no gender effects in terms of the degree or intensity of aggressive behaviours, girls were more likely to express aggression verbally using denigration and gloating whereas boys were more likely to display physical aggression via interpersonal and object struggles.
Conclusions The study provided evidence for the specificity of effects, with strong links between parental and child peer conflict. These effects appear to arise from direct exposure to parental conflict, rather than indirectly, through mother–child interactions.