Study Shows How Parental Debt Affects Children’s Social and Emotional Well-being

How parental debt affects children's socioemotional well-being

By Christina Lavers

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Dartmouth published by the journal of Pediatrics looked at the effect of parental debt on children’s socioemotional wellbeing, concluding that children from families with higher levels of secure debt exhibited greater socioemotional health than children from families with high levels of unsecure debt.

While similar studies have been conducted in the past, this was the first one to differentiate between types of debt. Mortgage, student loans, and car payments were classed as secured debt, while credit card and other forms of non-asset related debt were classed as unsecure debt. Another refinement of this study that adds to the credibility of its findings is that due to its length, researchers were able to study the effect of changing debt levels on the same family, rather than relying on comparisons between different families, which can be problematic due to the many variables.

The researchers, led by Lawrence M. Berger, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and professor and doctoral program chair in the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jason N. Houle, assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth, studied a group of 9000 children between 1986 and 2008.

According to Houle, ‘It makes intuitive sense that debt that can help you improve your social status in life and make investments — taking on student loans to go to college or taking on a mortgage to buy a home might lead to better outcomes, while taking on debt that is not tied to these investments (such as credit card debt), may be more harmful.”

The findings of this study are not surprising when we consider that what the researchers have classified as ‘secured debts’ are debts that are accrued as a means of working toward an improved standard of living and are usually part of a strategy of advancement, while ‘unsecured debts’ tend to be symptoms of over-spending and general financial mismanagement. Parents with higher levels of unsecured debt would likely face higher levels of stress and anxiety which could subsequently affect their ability to be at their best in terms of parenting.

“Interest works night and day in fair weather and in foul. It gnaws at a man’s substance with invisible teeth.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

When we are relaxed we are more likely to operate within the alpha brainwave state, whereas when we are stressed we are more likely to operate in a beta or gamma state. In the relaxed alpha brainwave state we are more capable of connection; there is a natural, peaceful flow between us and our environment. In contrast when our brain is operating from a beta state we are more likely to feel irritable and put up barriers in an attempt to avoid potentially overwhelming stimuli. Anyone who has experienced high levels of stress knows how difficult it can be to cater to our own needs, let alone the needs of another when we are overcome with worry and anxiety.

Humans are social creatures. As children we naturally look to our parents to gauge the level of threat in our environment. When our parents respond to us from a space of calm we feel secure and trust that all is well. However when our parents’ actions reflect a disconnected, stress driven state, we naturally assume there must be danger looming. When humans perceive a threat, cortisol and other stress-related chemicals are released into our bodies.

According to experts high levels of stress hormones affect the developing circuitry of children’s brains. Children with higher levels of cortisol are more likely to exhibit lower cognitive functions such as planning, impulse, emotional control, and attention. These functions, which are typically categorised as executive functions, are important in terms of academic success and general life management skills.

How parental debt affects children's socioemotional well-being 1

While there are inevitably times when accruing ‘unsecured’ debt is an unavoidable reality, for example medical bills and other unanticipated but necessary expenses, some parents accrue unsecured debt as a means to provide their children with a higher standard of living. Out of a desire to provide ‘the best’ for their children, parents who consistently spend beyond their means can easily find themselves spiralling into a situation of unmanageable debt. The findings of this study would suggest that this practice could have the opposite effect to the one desired and actually contribute to disadvantaging their children.

“Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.” ~ Ben Stein

Because we live in a consumer based society in which material goods are promoted as symbols of happiness and success it can be easy to become swayed into believing that having access to the latest technology and fashion is a priority. However, what children need to thrive is something that can’t just be bought with money. The real priorities for promoting a child’s sense of wellbeing are safety and connection, which according to this study are undermined by high levels of unsecured debt in the family.

When we invest in areas of personal development (education) and stable living environments (mortgage) we are creating more satisfaction and security in our lives and the lives of our children. However when we succumb to social pressure and rely on increasing debt to accumulate status symbols, we compromise our family’s wellbeing. So when deciding what is and isn’t worth dragging our families down a debt paved road for, it is important to remember that the most important thing we can do for our children is to be there for them as a calm, present, loving force, and anything that has the potential to compromise our ability to maintain that state, rather than support it, is best avoided.

“When people love each other, they are content with very little. When we have light and joy in our hearts, we don’t need material wealth. The most loving communities are often the poorest.” ~ Jean Vanier, Community and Growth


Further articles from Christina Lavers:

About the author:

Christina Lavers

Christina Lavers is a writer, an artist, a creative enthusiast, and an inner world explorer. Born in Montreal Quebec Canada, she now lives with her life partner and son in a rainforest pocket in the hills behind Coffs Harbour, NSW Australia. She spends her time playing, creating, growing and sharing.

Christina is devoted to assisting people to find and connect with their own creative magical current that flows deep within. She is now offering a comprehensive e-course designed to help people light up their world with passion and creativity. You can access Section One here for free!

Christina has also recently published her first full length book, a memoir about her wild awakening journey entitled Jump Into the Blue, and she is currently working on the next one.

“My journey has been about personal alchemy… exploring the mysteries of my soul and my environment, and learning to bring all aspects, the light and the dark, together with the transcending ingredient… love. The more I uncover and nurture the wounded aspects of my being, the more whole and grounded I feel and the more my outer world reflects the love, wonder and magic I have discovered inside”.

You can follow Christina’s work at:


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