© 2017 Elsevier Inc. Background There is debate about whether the difficulties that children with different degrees of oppositionality (ODD) and callous–unemotional traits (CU) have in processing emotions are global or specific. The aim of this study is to identify difficulties in recognizing emotion (happiness, anger, sadness and fear) through a go/no-go task in children with different levels of ODD and CU traits. Method A total of 320 8-year-old children were assessed through questionnaires filled out by teachers about oppositional defiant symptoms and CU traits and were then distributed into four groups: LowCU–HighODD, HighCU–LowODD, HighCU–HighODD and a comparison group (LowCU–LowODD). Results The analyses of variance comparing the 4 groups showed that the two groups with high ODD were less accurate than the control group in recognizing the emotion when the stimuli expressed happiness, fear or neutral emotion. The HighCU–HighODD group differed in the quality of the response (correct/wrong responses) but not in the reaction time in relation to the comparison group. The LowCU–HighODD group was faster to respond to emotions than the comparison group. Implications The results show that the deficit in emotion processing is not restricted to specific distressing emotions such as fear or sadness, but they point to a global impairment in emotion processing in children scoring high in the constructs studied. The results also suggest that the difficulties that children with combined CU traits and oppositional conduct problems have in processing emotions are more of an emotional rather than an attentional nature.