We estimated associations between total amount of parental debt and of home mortgage, student loan, automobile, and unsecured debt with children’s socioemotional well-being.


We used population-based longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Cohort and Children of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 Cohort. Our analytic sample consisted of 29 318 child-year observations of 9011 children and their mothers observed annually or biennially from 1986 to 2008. We used the Behavioral Problems Index to measure socioemotional well-being. We used ordinary least squares regressions to estimate between-child associations of amounts and types of parental debt with socioemotional well-being, net of a host of control variables, and regressions with child-specific fixed effects to estimate within-child associations of changes in parental debt with changes in socioemotional well-being, net of all time-constant observed and unobserved confounders.


Greater total debt was associated with poorer child socioemotional well-being. However, this association varied by type of debt. Specifically, higher levels of home mortgage and education debt were associated with greater socioemotional well-being for children, whereas higher levels of and increases in unsecured debt were associated with lower levels of and declines in child socioemotional well-being.


Debt that allows for investment in homes (and perhaps access to better neighborhoods and schools) and parental education is associated with greater socioemotional well-being for children, whereas unsecured debt is negatively associated with socioemotional development, which may reflect limited financial resources to invest in children and/or parental financial stress. This suggests that debt is not universally harmful for children’s well-being, particularly if used to invest in a home or education.

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