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All Bets Are Off: How problem gambling impacts families

A Clinical Science Insight from The Family Institute

Most Americans gamble responsibly. It can be harmless enough — put a few bucks down on a game to “make it more interesting.” But gambling can also become problematic, even pathological, and have profound impacts on families.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, nearly 3 million people in the United States meet the criteria for problem gambling as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, fourth edition (or DSM-IV-TR, the primary tool mental health providers use to diagnose and treat their clients). Another 6 – 9 million people (2 – 3% of the population) have a less serious but still significant gambling problem.

Unfortunately, these numbers don’t include the millions of spouses, partners, parents and children whose lives are impacted by someone else’s problem gambling. These behaviors can impact families in the following ways:

  • Gambling can be easier to hide than other addictions, since it doesn’t have the same physical symptoms detectable by sight, smell or sound. Additionally, the symptoms of problem gambling aren’t as well-known as those of other addictions. As a result, the behavior can go unnoticed for years.
  • The financial impact of gambling can be a life-changing event for families. Credit card debt, bank loans, illegal debts to bookies, and money owed to family/friends can all add up to ruin a family’s finances, or at least add an additional financial strain.
  • Upon learning of a partner’s problem gambling, she/he might isolate her/himself from the gambler, causing additional strain on the relationship. The partner may also blame her/himself for the behavior, feel shame for having not known about it, and feel burdened by having to take over all the family finances.
  • Children may also feel isolated from their gambling parent, and feel a loss of that relationship.
  • Extended family members can also be adversely affected by problem gambling. They may share in the sense of betrayal so common in families after learning of the gambling, as well as the shame and guilt.

Because they feel the impact of problem gambling so deeply, family members can also provide support for their loved one as she/he gets treatment for the problem. Family and couples therapy, in addition to individual therapy, can help rebuild some of the vulnerable family bonds by restoring trust, dealing with feelings of shame and/or guilt, and establishing healthy communication strategies.

For more information on problem gambling, read The Family Institute’s Clinical Science Insight white paper.

For more information on The Family Institute, visit our website.

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