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The representation of fathers by children of depressed mothers: refining the meaning of parentification in high-risk samples


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  Children’s representations of mothers in doll-play are associated with child adjustment. Despite the importance of fathers for children’s adjustment, especially in the context of maternal psychopathology, few studies have considered children’s representations of their fathers.

Method:  We examined the portrayal of fathers by 5-year-old children of depressed (= 55) and non-depressed (= 39) mothers in a doll-play procedure concerning family experience.

Results:  Children gave equal prominence in their play to mothers and fathers. Representations of fathers were unrelated to maternal mood, but were associated with parental conflict. Representations of child care for the father that was unreciprocated predicted poor child adjustment in school, but only in children exposed to maternal postnatal depression.

Conclusions:  It may be clinically useful to consider children’s distinctive representations of their mother and father; but the concept of parentification in relation to risk and resilience effects requires refinement.