Background Discrepancies between parents and children in their assessment of children's mental health affect the evaluation of need for services and must be taken seriously. This article presents the differences between parents' and children's reports of the children's symptoms and social impairment, based on the results of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The interrelationship between relational aspects and socio-demographic factors with patterns of disagreement are explored. Methods Differences in the prevalence and means of SDQ symptom and impact scores were obtained from 8,154 primary school children, aged between 10 and 13 years, and their parents. Agreement between matched pairs was measured using Pearson's and Spearman's rho correlations. Socio-demographic variables, communication patterns and parental engagement were analysed as possible correlates of informant discrepancies using bivariate and multivariate logistic regression models. Results In general, although children reported more symptoms, they reported less impact of perceived difficulties than parents. The parents were more consistent in their evaluation of symptoms and impact than were the children. Exploration of highly discrepant subgroups showed that, when children reported the most symptoms and impact, qualitative aspects of the parent-child relationship and family structure seemed to be more powerful predictors of disagreement than were gender of the child and socio-demographic variables. When parents reported the most symptoms and impact, low parental educational level, low income and male gender of the child played an additional role. Conclusions Our findings underline the importance of paying attention to child reports of emotional-behavioural difficulties, particularly when parents do not identify these problems. Considerations on what meaning parent-child discrepancy might have in the context of the parent-child relationship or the family's psychosocial status should be integrated in the overall understanding of the child's situation and subsequent recommendations.