The type of debt parents accumulate might affect how their child behaves. And that could be for better, or for worse, new research suggests.

Mortgages fall in the plus column, meaning they're positively linked to a child's emotional well-being. But, unpaid credit card bills appear to occupy the negative side, associated with more behavioural problems in kids, researchers determined.

Double-edged sword

Study co-author Jason Houle said the findings suggest that borrowing money can be a "double-edged sword" for parents and children alike, having "both positive and negative consequences depending on what it's being used for."

Houle, an assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said it stands to reason that debt taken on to better your life — like a college loan or a mortgage to buy a home in a safer neighbourhood — might lead to better outcomes in children.

On the other hand, he said, mounting debt linked to high-interest credit cards and short-term investments might indicate economic distress and be more harmful.

The research looked at data from two U.S. studies, which together tracked more than 9,000 mothers and their children ages 5 to 14 between 1986 and 2008.

Debt information was then compared to reports from mothers on their children's behaviour either every year or every other year.

Overall, children whose parents held some debt displayed greater social and emotional well-being than those whose parents had no debt whatsoever. That's probably because the parents had greater ability to borrow in the first place.

The research found that those who had more overall debt were more likely to have children with behaviour issues than those who had less overall debt.  

Unpaid credit card bills a major culprit

But digging deeper, the co-authors saw that the largest driver behind that behaviour association was unsecured debt, such as unpaid credit card bills.

By contrast, children of parents with mortgages and/or educational debt appeared to face a diminished risk for childhood behaviour problems.  

The reason? Researchers said unsecured debt may foster stressed out or anxious parents. That, in turn, might have a negative impact on the child.  

But parents with piles of bills shouldn't be afraid their kids are all doomed to act out. For one thing, the study findings don't prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between debt and childhood misbehaviour.

The study findings were published online Jan. 21 in the journal Pediatrics.

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