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This study used household survey data on the prevalence of child, parent and family variables to establish potential targets for a population-level intervention to strengthen parenting skills in the community. The goals of the intervention include decreasing child conduct problems, increasing parental self-efficacy, use of positive parenting strategies, decreasing coercive parenting and increasing help-seeking, social support and participation in positive parenting programmes.A total of 4010 parents with a child under the age of 12 years completed a statewide telephone survey on parenting.One in three parents reported that their child had a behavioural or emotional problem in the previous 6 months. Furthermore, 9% of children aged 2–12 years meet criteria for oppositional defiant disorder. Parents who reported their child's behaviour to be difficult were more likely to perceive parenting as a negative experience (i.e. demanding, stressful and depressing). Parents with greatest difficulties were mothers without partners and who had low levels of confidence in their parenting roles. About 20% of parents reported being stressed and 5% reported being depressed in the 2 weeks prior to the survey. Parents with personal adjustment problems had lower levels of parenting confidence and their child was more difficult to manage. Only one in four parents had participated in a parent education programme.Implications for the setting of population-level goals and targets for strengthening parenting skills are discussed.