Problem Gambling – What About the Children?

Problem gambling affects every family member. According to experts, a problem gambler affects the lives of eight others. Confused and vulnerable, bruised by the emotional turmoil at home, the sons and daughters of gambling parents face great risks, confusion and pain. They are gambling’s youngest victims, caught up in a whirlwind that they can neither control nor understand.

Like an earthquake, problem gambling shakes the family’s structure, causing essential relationships to crack. Some effects are immediate and clear. Most connections, however, are unclear – especially for younger children who have limited ability to connect cause with effect. They are often “sheltered” from the root source of their family’s problems, making it even harder for them to understand what’s going on. Often children blame themselves for the family’s problems.

Gambling is a complex issue for children to understand. On one hand, gambling is often a seemingly harmless part of a family’s recreation patterns. The relatives get together to play penny poker or pinochle. The kids play Monopoly with play money. The PTA or Scouts recruit kids to sell raffle tickets as a fund-raiser. Parents plan “casino nights” as an alcohol-free post-prom alternative. So what’s simple fun…and what’s cause for concern.

Not so long ago, organized gambling was something relegated to the shadows. While gamblers bet on horse races and sporting events, they tended to pursue action out of sight of the mainstream. An  atmosphere of disapproval surrounded betting. It was kept firmly apart from impressionable youngsters.

Not today. In a remarkably short time, gambling has moved from the shadows into the limelight. Much of North America has embraced it as a pain-free source of funding for good causes.

Until children can understand the distinctions of gambling, they are in the dark about why dad or mom’s “harmless recreation” touches off such trouble at home.

Children of gamblers share many of the dilemmas experienced by children whose parents are dependent on alcohol or drugs. Others, however, are quite distinct. While individuals who abuse substances have their alcohol or drugs, both visible symbols of havoc, gamblers can often pursue their activity with little or no tangible sign of a problem.

Gambling is easy to hide, especially from young children. While the behaviour that surrounds it can be devastating, its cause is veiled in mystery. This leaves children searching for clues in a vacuum, vulnerable to the agonizing suspicion that the problem is somehow their own fault.



• they may witness their parents’ constant battles over money;

• they may share the stress of the family’s financial problems, from a generally tight budget to foreclosures or other extreme collection measures;

• they may see the non-gambling spouse going to desperate lengths to control the other behaviour; this may be interpreted as “mean” and “spiteful” from the child’s perspective;

• they may be recruited by the gambling parent to share the excitement of winning or to cover up the consequences of loss;

• they may protect the gambler, diverting attention and making excuses to allay the other parent’s suspicion or anger;

• they may be torn by the parent’s wide mood swings;

• their affection may be bought with lavish gifts from the gambler when they are feeling lucky or seeking to ease their feelings of guilt;

• they may be blamed for wanting things that are “too expensive” and being a drain on the gambling parent’s pocket book; or

• they may understand the gambling parent is absent or distant from them…without a clue about what has caused mom or dad to pull away and seem to love them less.



• they strive to be the “perfect” child, trying to win parents’ approval (and a degree of control over their own lives) by excelling in every way at home and at school;

• they “act out” their confusion and fears with problem behaviours, creating a diversion and getting the attention they crave;

• they become skilled entertainers, making jokes and soaking up as much attention as they can, covering their deep inner needs with a cover of good humour; or

• they withdraw, attempting to dilute their feelings and protect themselves inside a shell that diverts attention away from them and their troubles.

Research also indicates that early exposure to gambling increases the child’s risk of developing problems; most adults who develop serious problems started to gamble before age eighteen, often with a parent.

It is important for children of problem gamblers to understand that problem gambling is a disorder that can be treated. It is not a moral failure. It is not simply poor judgement that can be corrected by “seeing the light.” It is a disorder that has seized control of a parent’s behaviour, with wide-ranging consequences for those who love them.

Source: Problem Gambling Family Guide – Saskatchewan Ministry of Health





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