1. Greater total parental debt, dominated by unsecured debt, was associated with increased child behavior problems.
2. Auto, home, and education debt were not associated with child behavior problems, and in the case of the latter, may be linked to greater within-child well-being over time.
Evidence Rating Level: 2 (good)
Study Rundown: Child socioemotional well-being is influenced by a variety of factors, one of which being parental financial stability. Although previous research has suggested that debt may negatively impact the adult psyche, conflicting data exists and associations between parental debt and child well-being had yet to be investigated. This study used population-based longitudinal data to explore the impact of different types of parental debt: auto, home, education, and unsecured debt (credit card and other non-asset debts) on child behavior. The authors computed and compared 6 different ordinary least squares regression models, each adjusting for different control variables in the study population. Adjusting for time-varying covariates such as marriage, income, employment, and education level, total debt was found to be positively associated with child behavior problems. A significant positive association was also noted for unsecured debt in all 6 models. Auto, home, and education debt, on the other hand, did not exhibit such an association; some models even suggested that they were tied to improved child well-being. As with all observational studies, however, these results should be interpreted cautiously due to the possibility of selection bias. For clinicians, this study’s findings highlight the importance of appreciating that not all debt equally affects child socioemotional well-being and that gauging parental unsecured debt level may be beneficial in the context of understanding child behavior problems.
Relevant Reading: Socioeconomic status and child development
Study Author, Dr. Lawrence M. Berger, MSW, PhD talks to 2 Minute Medicine: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Institute for Research on Poverty, Madison, Wisconsin.
“For medical practitioners, our research has implications for discussing financial stress with parents and considering whether parental debt may be a risk factor for children. A key take-away from our study is that unsecured debt (largely credit card debt but also other types) is negatively associated with child social-emotional development, whereas this is not the case for home, auto, or education debt.”
In-Depth [retrospective cohort]: Data on children and their mothers from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Cohort and Children of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Cohort were analyzed in 2-year increments from 1986 to 2008. The study population included 29 318 child-year observations of 9011 children ages 5 to 14 years and their mothers, and socioemotional well-being was assessed by a child’s total score on the Behavioral Problems Index, a 28-item rating scale of child behavior. Differences in the characteristics of the debtor and non-debtor families were observed: for example, debtors tended to have higher degrees of education, be married, and own their homes. In the context of these differences, the authors considered 6 ordinary least squares regression models that adjusted for different parameters (time stable and time-varying characteristics). To account for unobserved differences in baseline child behavior, the authors also introduced a lagging measure of behavioral problems. Both among children and considering individual children over time, unsecured debt was positively associated with behavior problems (p < 0.001). However, lacking data on the breakdown of unsecured debt into more specific categories (e.g. payday loan debt and medical debt), it was not possible assess the individual impact of these debts. Total education debt had a negative association trend but was only significantly (p < 0.05) associated with less child behavioral problems when within-child behavior was adjusted for differences in maternal education.
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