When parents are struggling with money problems they may think they already have enough to worry about, but a report by The Children's Society has added to their woes: their research has found that parents are also endangering their children's mental health.
The report found that 2.4 million children in England and Wales are living in households with problem debts, and that parents carrying a number of debts were most likely to be inflicting damage on their children.
The reason that the number of debts matters is that they are likely to be juggling a large number of people they owe money to. This may mean they are being chased by utility companies, stores, banks and payday loan companies.
Children are alarmed by large number of letters, phone calls and visits from the bailiffs, and feel insecure that they could lose their home and belongings at any time. They are also distressed by family arguments over money.
This is in addition to the mental health issues associated with children simply not having enough money. For some children debt means not being able to socialise or take part in activities like sports or school trips, and missing out on birthdays, family gatherings and holidays. Children feel embarrassed for not owning things that are considered normal by their classmates, and guilty, anxious and a sense of failure for not being able to help their parents deal with their debts. This inability to help leaves them with lower self-confidence and self-worth.
Almost a quarter of children in debt-ridden families (equivalent to more than 500,000 children) are unhappy with their lives. This means they are five times more likely to be unhappy than those in families without debt troubles.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children's Society, said: "The misery that debt can cause parents is well documented but now we can also demonstrate the real damage it can do to children's mental health."
What can be done?
The Children's Society, as part of its Debt Trap campaign, is calling for an overhaul of the way household debts are treated, to give families the chance to get things back on track – and to make sure children do not have to pay the price of debt with their mental health.
The charity is campaigning for the Government to provide a 12-month breathing space for families in problem debt, giving them time to seek advice and set up arrangements to repay their debts at a rate they can afford, free of charges, mounting interest rates and visits from intimidating bailiffs.
Reed added: "Without Government action to give struggling parents time to get their finances in order children will continue to be the innocent victims."
In the interim, parents need to know there is help available. Debt charities like StepChange cannot suddenly 'magic up' a chunk of spare cash, but they can help struggling parents ensure they have claimed all the benefits they are entitled to.
They can also talk to the people they owe money to, and arrange a debt repayment plan, so that the interest is frozen, and the chasing calls and letters stop.
Finally, if things have gone too far to be dealt with by debt management, they can talk families through all their options. This will help ensure that even in the worst case scenario, they have the support they need to ensure the family can afford to feed and clothe the children, and protect them from the worst of the stress that comes from a serious debt problem.