This paper considers how environmental threat may contribute to the child's use of avoidant strategies to regulate negative emotions, and how this may interact with high emotional reactivity to create vulnerability to conduct disorder symptoms. We report a study based on the hypothesis that interpreting others' behaviours in terms of their motives and emotions - using the intentional stance - promotes effective social action, but may lead to fear in threatful situations, and that inhibiting the intentional stance may reduce fear but promote conduct disorder symptoms. We assessed 5-year-olds' use of the intentional stance with an intentionality scale, contrasting high and low threat doll play scenarios. In a sample of 47 children of mothers with post-natal depression (PND) and 35 controls, children rated as securely attached with their mothers at the age of 18 months were better able to preserve the intentional stance than insecure children in high threat scenarios, but not in low threat scenarios. Girls had higher intentionality scores than boys across all scenarios. Only intentionality in the high threat scenario was associated with teacher-rated conduct disorder symptoms, and only in the children of women with PND. Intentionality mediated the associations between attachment security and gender and conduct disorder symptoms in the PND group. © 2008 The Royal Society.