FAMILIES and CONCERNED OTHERS of PROBLEM GAMBLERS
Often, families and others experience the direct negative impacts of one’s addiction long before the gambler seeks help if they do at all. Families often express disbelief and shock when they learn their family member has gambled away their life savings. In addition to the financial impact, families may also feel intense shame as a result of the loved one’s gambling addiction.
In Minnesota, help is available for families with a problem gambler. Treatment is often available at no cost, and families may seek twelve hours per year with a state–approved counselor, regardless of whether the gambler seeks counseling.
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Progression of Problem Gambling on Families
Much like the problem gambler, there are distinct phases that families and concerned others experience. These include the following:
- Makes excuses for gambling
- Considers gambling temporary
- Socially accepted
- Accepts increased gambling
- Rewards from gambling: gifts, trips, time together, share winnings
- Questions unpaid bills
- Keeps concerns to self
- Easily reassured
- Accepts remorse of gambler
- Relief: finances are better
- Spouse spends less time with family
- Spouse feels rejected
- Attempts to control gambling
- Provides bailouts
- Late bills
- Loss of intimacy
- Insecure about future
- Intense resentment
- Thinking impaired
- Physical symptoms
- Doubts sanity
- Anxiety – panic
- Suicidal thoughts and attempts
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Emotional breakdown
- Withdrawal symptoms
Communication between and within families
Frequently, family members are in denial. Some family members, not fully understanding the severity of the situation, think they are helping by bailing out the gambler and not seeing the ramifications it has for the spouse. Additionally, lack of communication is emotionally straining and isolating for concerned others.
Concerned others often feel like they cannot tell friends and, in some cases, family, about the situation. Keeping the secret is yet another stress. One way to alleviate some of the stress of keeping secrets as well as the shame and isolation is connecting with a trusted community elder or faith leader, who can help support concerned others.
A big part of recovery for both the gambler and family is honesty and trust. The lies and broken trust from the problem gambler can be difficult to repair. It’s an essential part of one’s recovery to be honest and to have open communication. Most benefit from having someone facilitate those initial conversations.
Talking with someone you know about a potential gambling problem can be difficult. It’s important to remember that you can’t stop someone from gambling; only he or she can make that decision. Choose the right moment to have the conversation and speak in a caring and understanding tone. Make sure you hear what the other person is saying.
To start the conversation:
- Let them know you care about them and tell them you’re concerned about how they’re acting.
- Explain exactly what they have done that concerns you.
- Share how their behavior is affecting other people – be specific about what you expect from them (“I want you to talk to someone about your gambling”) and what they can expect from you (“I won’t cover for you anymore”).
- After you’ve shared your observations and feelings, allow them to respond and listen with a non-judgmental attitude.
- Let them know you are willing to help, but don’t try to counsel them yourself.
- Provide information, not advice.
- Encourage them to call the toll-free helpline.
Encourage the family member to take positive steps to deal with their gambling. It is not good enough for the family member to simply make a promise to stop gambling. There needs to be genuine action to back up the words. The problem gambler can seek counseling or attend Gambler’s Anonymous. They can consider self-excluding from local gambling venues. They need to be open with you about their financial situation and display a new interest in family activities.
If the gambler makes promises they do not keep, they may not be serious about stopping gambling. Sometimes problem gamblers tell their families what they want to hear, rather than the truth. If the problem gambler is not willing to stop gambling, then the family will need to accept that fact. You can’t force someone to stop gambling. All you can do is adjust your own circumstances to protect your family from the problem gambler.
It is usually helpful for family members to talk to a gambling counselor or group such as Gam-Anon about their experiences with a problem gambler. Experts can provide helpful information about problem gambling and specific strategies.
For specific advice on how to approach a problem gambler, call the Minnesota Gambling Helpline at 1-800-333-HOPE (4673) to talk with a certified counselor. The helpline operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are toll-free and confidential.
Gam-Anon, meetings for families and concerned others, www.gamanonmn.com or call 1-888-435-7166 (1-888-HELP1MN).
The children of problem gamblers often receive less attention and nurturing at home as a result of the amount of time the parents spend gambling. This can lead to feelings of abandonment, anger or depression, and the children may blame themselves for problems in the home. This can result in the child withdrawing or acting out.
Children who grow up in a household with a problem gambler are also at higher risk of developing the problem themselves later on. Having the love and support of a caring adult will improve their chances of living a more balanced life.
Children often get confused about their feelings for a parent who has a gambling problem. That’s why it’s important that they understand that gambling is only one part of their parent’s overall behavior, and that it’s okay to love someone even though certain things they do are upsetting.
To help avoid these problems, children should be told about their parent’s problem in an age-appropriate way. The key points of the conversations should include:
- A parent/loved one is struggling with a gambling problem, but they still love their family.
- It is not their fault that there is a problem, and they are not responsible for fixing it.
- There is a problem, but adults are taking care of it.
- They can feel better by talking about their feelings.
- Treatment for their parent is available and works.
- If the child is old enough, discuss upcoming lifestyle changes; however, reinforce the message that it is not the child’s responsibility to worry about the family’s finances.
Children need to feel safe and secure. This is accomplished, in part, by establishing a sense of structure and consistency in their lives through regular routines and activities. Parents can help by spending more time with their children and making sure that they have people in their lives who they can feel “safe” talking to – even when those people are not the parents themselves.
Families and affected others need to understand that they cannot fix the problem gambler. Even if the problem gambler tries to blame you, their problem gambling is not your fault. They need to take responsibility for themselves and their own well-being. What affected others want most of all is to relate to people who understand what they are going through. Seeking out a Gam-Anon group could prove to be a helpline for the family. Treatment is also available for family members even if the gambler chooses not to seek treatment.
Helpline 1-800-333-HOPE (4673) for referral to a treatment provider.
By the time families discover their loved one’s gambling problem, financial losses may already be significant. Bankruptcy or failure to make mortgage payments, car payments, college tuition, etc., may be part of the new reality. Families need to protect themselves before the gambler can deplete their family assets. Limiting or prohibiting access to family assets may be the first necessary step to take if the family hopes to rebound.
Develop a Personal Financial Recovery Plan to Include:
- comparison of expense and debt obligations with income,
- creating a debt list (balance, payment, status and timeline),
- devising strategies to change income, change expenses or both when expenses exceed income,
- identifying trusted family member/friend to assist management of personal finances,
- a resource list of current, reliable, free financial references, and
- allowing for follow-up telephone consultation with financial counselor during transition/re-entry to life after treatment program.