Families with children are more than twice as likely to be in debt than those without children, according to a new report.
One in five families with children in England and Wales have struggled with debt in the last year, according to a Children's Society survey. This represents 1.4 million households, including 2.4 million children.
This compares with fewer than one in ten households without children that have fallen into debt.
It means that on a daily basis, children in Britain are struggling to survive without enough food, clothing or heating. It also makes them vulnerable to worry, anxiety, bullying and mental health problems.
Some families have as many as four different types of debt, the most common being arrears on energy bills, followed by loans from friends and family, then bank loans and finally, council tax arrears.
Nearly a third of parents in debt have arrears of more than £5,000. Many of the debt problems have been exacerbated by redundancy, reductions in working hours or illness.
The problem is far worse in areas such as the East Midlands, where more than one third of families with children have suffered debt problems. In the South East it is much lower, with about one in ten having fallen into debt.
In a new Parliamentary Bill published today, the Children's Society is advocting a 12-month "breathing space" scheme to give struggling families time to get back on their feet.
The society's chief executive Matthew Reed said: "Again and again we have raised the urgent problem of families who are trapped by debt, and whose children often pay the price with their mental and physical health.
"With unfair and unsustainable repayment plans, hidden charges, soaring interest, visits from intimidating bailiffs and the fear of eviction, the odds are stacked against parents who are desperate to find a way out of their debt. Meanwhile mums and dads are being forced to make impossible decisions between feeding and clothing their children, and paying the bills.
"It is now absolutely clear that this problem is not going away unless the Government takes action to give families the breathing space they need to get their finances back on track. Acting now could have a hugely beneficial impact, not just on family finances in the short term but on the futures of some of the country's most vulnerable children."
In the foreword to the report, Reed and Mike O'Connor, chief executive of the StepChange Debt Charity, say the aim is to it lift the lid on how around two and a half million children are living in families with problem debt, behind on £4.8 billion of payments on household bills and loan repayments.
"We see every day the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children from its sharp effects, how they are battling to pay the bills and find enough money for food, childcare and other everyday basics.
"This leads to a debt trap – where families have no option but to take on credit to pay for essentials, but the costs of keeping up debt repayments leads to further pressure on household budgets, so children miss out on the basics. Parents are often faced with an impossible choice: do you take on further credit or cut spending on essentials for your children, reducing their quality of life? In this report we expose how sometimes the strain of living in debt is simply too much to bear."
Opinium surveyed 2,000 adults for The Debt Trap: Exposing the impact of problem debt on children.