BACKGROUND: Screening children for behavioural difficulties requires the use of a tool that is culturally valid. We explored the cross-cultural acceptability and utility of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire for pre-school children (aged 3-5) as perceived by families in New Zealand. METHODS: A qualitative interpretive descriptive study (focus groups and interviews) in which 65 participants from five key ethnic groups (New Zealand European, Maori, Pacific, Asian and other immigrant parents) took part. Thematic analysis using an inductive approach, in which the themes identified are strongly linked to the data, was employed. RESULTS: Many parents reported they were unclear about the purpose of the tool, affecting its perceived value. Participants reported not understanding the context in which they should consider the questions and had difficulty understanding some questions and response options. Maori parents generally did not support the questionnaire based approach, preferring face to face interaction. Parents from Maori, Pacific Island, Asian, and new immigrant groups reported the tool lacked explicit consideration of children in their cultural context. Parents discussed the importance of timing and multiple perspectives when interpreting scores from the tool. CONCLUSIONS: In summary, this study posed a number of challenges to the use of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire in New Zealand. Further work is required to develop a tool that is culturally appropriate with good content validity.