Abstract The aim of this study was to identify groups of children at increased risk of behavioural or emotional problems on the basis of socio-demographic characteristics, family characteristics, and recent life events with a focus on unemployment and divorce or separation. We obtained data on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) from a community-based national sample of 4480 parents of school-aged children and interviewed them about their demographic and family characteristics and about the child's recent life events. Results showed that family characteristics and recent life events were more strongly associated with children's risks of behavioural and emotional problems as measured by the CBCL than other demographic characteristics. Risks were somewhat higher for children who had experienced parental unemployment and divorce or separation recently, as compared to those who had experienced these events in the more distant past. We conclude that children with recent experience of parental unemployment or parental divorce or separation are at a relatively high risk of behavioural and emotional problems as reported by parents. Although relatively high, the risks that were found do not justify restriction of screening for behavioural and emotional problems to these children.