Gambling is becoming a way of life, to the detriment of individual and family lives. Poker is becoming increasingly popular, now offered in neighborhood bars. Buses transport gamblers to casinos from convenient locations. Exposure on TV, video games and the Internet is increasing. Gambling is being considered as a means to increase revenue for the state. As a new generation known as “Casino Kids” are being raised among the fast action and blinking lights, an estimated 2.5 million children in the U.S. are affected by a parent’s gambling addiction. An increased risk of divorce, abuse, and emotional disorders are associated with families affected by gambling addiction. Family treatment is crucial to coping with problems caused by gambling addiction, especially for children who are most vulnerable when family functioning becomes disrupted.
When the chips are down: gambling addiction
Biological studies show that gambling addiction is similar to chemical addiction. Like a chemical addiction, a gambler is unable to control the addiction, may experience mood swings (including depression, anxiety and euphoria), may seek immediate gratification and may use gambling as a means to escape pain or unresolved issues. Both gambling and chemical dependency are disorders that steadily progress. The addiction will consume the gambler and, if not addressed, will erode family relationships and the ability to participate in everyday life. Crisis intervention is crucial as many gamblers commit suicide, experience mental breakdowns or face financial ruin.
Gamblers are not addicted to money, but to the “action,” the thrill and arousal of gambling. Through gambling the addict may seek self-gratification or an escape from problems. As the addiction progresses, the need for “action” becomes so great that the high of gambling is comparable to a cocaine high.
Gambling addictions occur in cycles of winning, losing, and desperation. The “winning phase” is marked with euphoria; the gambler may be optimistic and entertain grandiose fantasies (often making promises involving their winnings or boasting of their status as a “high roller”). The excitement of gambling leads to increased bets and increased time spent at the casino. A gambling addict may neglect personal care, blackout or abandon social and family responsibility.
The “losing phase” is marked with frustration and need to return to the casino to win back losses. In the “losing phase” a gambler may develop irrational thoughts or rituals involving the “cause” of their loss and how to resume winning. The gambler may blame or guilt others for the loss. An example would be a gambler telling a spouse, “I only win when you support me, I lose when you don’t.” A gambler may also project their frustrations on others in aggression. In the “losing phase”, the gambler may blame others for their loss, turn to substance abuse, or experience severe life disruptions.
Many children affected by gambling addiction report feeling profound loss and helplessness, comparable to the grief experienced after a death.In the “desperation phase”, the gambler spends more time at the casino; “action” becomes the sole focus of the gambler. Or the gambler may feel guilt, which invites a need to “make up” for losses. In the “desperation phase” a gambler may borrow money, sell personal / family items or commit illegal acts to get more money to gamble. Gambling will often damage relationships with others, resulting in isolation and / or withdrawal. As the addiction progresses, the gambler is driven to compulsive urges to satisfy their need for “action” and cannot separate the casino from any other aspect of life. Preoccupation with gambling becomes so intense (reliving past gambling experiences, planning future ventures or initiating children into gambling), it becomes difficult, even painful, to stop gambling. A gambler may stop for a time only to return to the “action”, in which the phases of gambling addiction begin again.
Cycles of family violence may occur along side gambling addiction. A study conducted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that problem gambling is as much a risk factor for domestic violence as alcohol abuse. Feelings of frustration, desperation, hopelessness and anger incite family tension, stress and overall dysfunction. Emotional abuse is prevalent within families experiencing gambling addiction. The behavior of a gambling addict is unpredictable, resulting in disrupted family routines and for a child, a lack of security. Many children affected by gambling addiction report feeling profound loss and helplessness, comparable to the grief experienced after a death. The gambler may abandon the family, deplete finances, or berate family members for not “supporting” or not “understanding” their gambling. Living with a gambling addict often is described as “living a lie” and “living a nightmare.”
Children affected by gambling addiction
Casinos create the illusion that gambling is “family friendly” by offering daycare, restaurants and entertainment. Nothing could be further from the truth: children are adversely affected by gambling addiction. From a young age, children are attune to family dynamics, and are keenly aware of turmoil. Through behavior, a child will express or mimic what is experienced in the home.
The impact of gambling addiction on children is devastating. On an emotional level, children commonly feel betrayal, depression, anger and anxiety. This in turn results in low self-esteem or difficult behaviors (such as regression, self-injuring, aggression and addictions). Further, the casino, or reminders of, may trigger anxiety or trauma, in which the child re-experiences feelings and memories associated with the parent’s gambling addiction. Children may also become fearful and unable to trust or become close to others.
When the need to “win” or experience a “thrill” is modeled by a gambling parent, children may equate love with dangerous, thrill seeking behavior—or feel the need to compete with the casino, seeking attention with inappropriate behavior. In turn, children are set up to be further victimized or become addicts, themselves. The rates of neglect and abandonment (left in locked vehicles in casino parking lots or left alone without proper care) are high for children in families affected by gambling addiction. Many children will turn to addictions, including gambling, or substance abuse.
Withheld feelings may result in mental or physical decline. Financial hardship caused by gambling may deprive a child of necessities, some families experience poverty and even, homelessness.
Fold ’em: healing after gambling addiction
Gambling addiction must be acknowledged as a major addictive disorder in which professional help must be sought and relentlessly pursued. Counseling is effective in addressing psychological issues as well as offering guidance in repairing family relations. In addition, parenting support groups or classes may offer important skills and insights. If a family is fleeing domestic violence, seeking help and meeting safety concerns must be addressed; the support of a shelter or social service agency will offer crucial support and resources.
A commitment to recovery is crucial to repairing family relations, and addressing the repercussions of gambling addiction. The road to recovery will not be easy—the gambler may continue to lie, manipulate or resist treatment. Despite the gambler’s condition, the needs of the child must come first. Children who have been affected by a parent’s gambling addiction will need help from an agency that specializes in working with children, as part of their healing, in addition to seeking support and / or therapy for the family.
When seeking help, a child may resist change because they are afraid of losing a parent. Positive changes must be reinforced not only by getting help but also by modeling behavior. Turning to community agencies, faith-based agencies or family and friends may offer support, and assist in upholding new changes. Being part of the community and enjoying activities, as a family, will create new experiences and outlets, replacing casinos with quality time. When dealing with gambling addiction, the best bet for the well-being of the child is to get help immediately.
For information or help, call the Minnesota Problem Gambling helpline: 1-800-333-HOPE. Or visit.
This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.
Last Updated on February 9, 2022