Parents' Financial Debt Linked to Behavioral Problems in Their Kids

A mom holds her daughter, looking stressed
(Image credit: SpeedKingz/

Children whose parents have certain kinds of financial debt may be more likely to have behavioral problems, a new study suggests.

The researchers found that the children in the study whose parents had "unsecured debt," such as credit card debt or unpaid medical bills, were more likely to experience behavioral difficulties than kids whose parents did not have this type of debt.

Unsecured debt tends to be more expensive than secured debt, such as a mortgage or a car loan, because people generally pay higher interest rates for unsecured debt, and "it is expected to be paid off over a shorter period of time," compared with other types of debt, said study author Lawrence M. Berger, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Therefore, this type of debt may trigger stress and anxiety in parents, which may affect their parenting and, in turn, their kids' emotional well-being, the researchers said.

In the study, the researchers asked the mothers of about 9,000 children ages 5 to 14 about their children's behavior. For example, they asked the moms whether their children were ever aggressive, withdrawn or depressed. [8 Tips for Parents of Teens with Depression]

The researchers also looked at whether the children's parents had any debt and, if they did, what types of debt they had. The types of debt that the researchers included in their analysis were home mortgages, parents' student loans, loans for the purchase of a vehicle, and unsecured debt such as credit card debt, payday loans (cash advances that typically involve very high interest rates) and medical debt.

The researchers found that, among the parents who had unsecured debt, the average amount of the debt was $10,000. These parents also had higher levels of total debt than parents with no unsecured debt.

In contrast, having secured debt such as home mortgages and student loans was associated with lower levels of behavior problems in children, according to the study. This may be because this type of debt is associated with investing in assets (such as homes or cars), as well as lower interest rates and more predictable payoff schedules, compared with unsecured debt, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that when parents decide to borrow money, they should try to avoid loans with high fees and high interest rates, to the extent possible, Berger said.

Overall, parents should remember that "it is not the tangible things so much that kids need, that they are much happier with simple things and parents who are calmer," said Lori K. Evans, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center's Child Study Center, who was not involved in the study. It is more important for parents to be there for their children emotionally than to buy them certain material things, except those needed to meet their basic needs, she told Live Science.

And parents who already have debt that is causing them stress can try to be mindful of how they act around their children, Evans said. While spending time with their children, parents should try to make a conscious effort to focus on being there for their children and should try not to think about the things that are stressing them, Evans said.

The new study was published today (Jan. 21) in the journal Pediatrics.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer