Children can't take out loans - but they can suffer the consequences of aggressive creditors all the same. The Children's Society is deeply concerned that bailiffs, utility companies and local councils who chase struggling parents over unpaid debts may be inflicting real damage to children's mental health.
Our new report, The Damage of Debt, shows that children in families with multiple debt types are at far higher risk of suffering from mental health problems than those whose parents are debt-free. Especially if they already live in poverty.
The findings suggest that having to juggle a range of different creditors, from utility companies to stores, banks and payday loan companies, all of which may be seeking to claw back debts at the same time, ramps up the pressure on financially stressed households.
For some children debt means not being able to socialise or take part in activities like sports or school trips. 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.
The impact of debt collection on children is felt directly, through the distress of repeated phone calls, letters or visits from bailiffs, as well as indirectly through the strain of family arguments. Both can have lasting impacts on children and their mental health.
Let's not blame these families, or allow children to be punished for decisions they didn't make. Instead let's focus our efforts on making sure they are helped back on their feet. Families need an affordable route out that does not force them to pick between feeding and clothing their children, and paying the bills.
No-one starts out wanting to get into problem debt. But many low-income families are under enormous pressure, struggling to cope with low wages and rising bills. It can take just one unexpected set-back - a serious illness, losing a job, domestic violence or even the boiler packing in - to push them over the edge. Families can sometimes feel they have little choice but to take on debt so they can continue to provide the basics for their children.
Once a family has fallen into a debt trap it can be incredibly hard for them to recover. Interest accumulates rapidly and the costs of bailiff visits are often added to the money owed.
It's true that some creditors are better than others when it comes to treating families fairly. Some even allow parents to work out affordable repayment schemes so they can settle their debts over time. But too many don't, and all it takes is one aggressive creditor to spoil the efforts of the rest. We can't wait for lenders to do the right thing. It's time for co-ordinated action to protect children from the impact of problem debt.
The Children's Society, as part of its Debt Trap campaign, is campaigning for the Government to provide a legally binding 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.
We're urging MPs to support Kelly Tolhurst's Private Member's Bill, due to be debated in Parliament in the coming months, which proposes such a scheme for families in debt. It's time this country gave struggling families the breathing space they need to escape the debt trap.
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