Problem gambling and families: the hidden voices of children
‘It’s not just gamblers who need support. It’s also those around them.’
It’s the tagline for an awareness campaign warning of the effects that compulsive gambling can have not only on gamblers themselves, but also on those closest to them.
For every person who experiences severe harm because of their gambling problem, it’s estimated that up to six other people are negatively affected.
The gambling can lead to financial stress, strained relationships and—in the worst cases—domestic violence.
Clinically trained psychologist Dr Aino Suomi began exploring these links more than 10 years ago, when she was involved in one of the first ever large-scale studies investigating the relationship between family violence and problem gambling in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.
Funded by the Australian Research Council, the research built on anecdotal evidence and smaller empirical studies showing high rates of domestic violence in problem gambling populations. It revealed a strong co-occurrence of gambling and family violence, and harmful consequences for families experiencing both.
A decade on, the knowledge base on the patterns of family violence in problem gambling populations is growing. But there is still a lack of understanding of how the two behaviours are related.
“It’s now quite an established body of literature, but the mechanisms are still not so well understood, and we’d like to know more about the nature of the impact on children,” says Dr Suomi, research fellow at ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies.
“We know that living in a family where someone has a gambling problem can be distressing and overwhelming, and we know that children with gambling parents are at risk for behavioural and emotional issues, but we don’t really have hard data showing why that is so and we don’t fully know the extent of the problem.”
Dr Suomi is seeking to fill the gap in the literature with her current research, a larger scale project involving three stages: a systematic review of the existing evidence; a national survey of regular gamblers, their spouses and children; and a final phase with in-depth interviews involving a selection of survey participants.
The study is led by Dr Suomi in collaboration with ACU’s Nina Lucas, Associate Professor Nicki Dowling from Deakin University, and Professor Paul Delfabbro from the University of Adelaide. It is funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.
The overall goal, Dr Suomi says, is to better understand how parental gambling impacts children and family functioning.
“We really want to explore the intricacies and nuances, the stories of these young people who’ve grown up with one or both parents who gamble” she says.
“This is a complex issue with many factors involved, and there is a desperate need for more research. We need to learn more about who these people are, the issues they’re facing and how they could be better supported.”
Gambling and conflict
One thing that is more or less universal amongst families experiencing gambling harm is family conflict.
Even in those family units where domestic violence isn’t present, there are often arguments and emotional volatility, say Dr Suomi and her co-authors in a 2013 study highlighting the family impacts of problem gambling.
“Research shows significant dysfunction and dissatisfaction in the family and intimate relationships of problem gamblers,” write Dr Suomi and her colleagues. “Over time, these dynamics may contribute to gambling relapses, escalating the level of conflict and mistrust…”
The conflict can be over a range of things from financial difficulties to parental absence.
“In some families, that conflict might lead to or exacerbate existing mental health problems for other family members, or child wellbeing issues,” Dr Suomi tells Impact. “In others, the conflict will escalate to violence.”
A more recent publication led by Dr Suomi, titled ‘Patterns of Family and Intimate Partner Violence in Problem Gamblers’, showed that the chronic stress associated with problem gambling “could be a catalyst for the perpetration of violence by the problem gambler against family members, or by a family member against the gambler”.
“The gambler might come home after a big loss and they’re really angry, and they just lash out at their family members,” Dr Suomi explains.
“Or the non-gambling spouse might find out they’re about to lose their house or their livelihood because of their partner’s gambling losses, and it’s such a shock that may lead to violence or create a really strained relationship between the parents. The children are of course living amongst all these dysfunctional family dynamics.”
The hidden voices
Parental problem gambling can take a devastating toll on the lives of young people.
Children in families where gambling is a problem are often exposed to a range of stressors, including poor role-modelling and general parental neglect, abuse and rejection. This can result in low self-esteem, a loss of trust and social withdrawal.
“Kids exposed to gambling harm have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide,” says Dr Suomi, whose research has noted that the burden of harm associated with gambling is similar in magnitude to a major depressive disorder.
“The most obvious impact is prolonged financial deprivation, where the family lacks money because it has been spent on gambling and the kids miss out on things like school excursions or recreational activities; they lack quality time with their parents who might be stressed about the impacts of gambling and their relationships become problematic in many ways.”
Young people can also be victims of domestic violence or witness parental violence. While research shows it’s common for both the gambling parent and the non-gambling parent to perpetrate family violence, children are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, many of those experiencing gambling harm don’t seek professional help.
“Our very preliminary findings show that with a lot of the children who are exposed to parental gambling, it’s only when they get a bit older that they realise the effects of parental gambling on their own wellbeing—the things they missed out on and the high levels of conflict and family dysfunction they experienced,” Dr Suomi says.
She points out that much of the previous research has explored the experiences of those who come forward for treatment, potentially missing a large cohort who have been exposed to gambling harm.
“This study has recruited many people who’ve never sought help, and that will allow us to explore the issues more deeply, to better understand the extent of the problem in the community as well as the mechanisms of the links with violence.”
Importantly, a better understanding of the relationship between problem gambling and family violence can provide vital information for both government and non-government agencies that support problem gamblers and their family members — including children.
“Some services are doing really beautiful things using whole-of-family approaches, but in general, we need a more systematic strategy and tools to helping or treating children of gamblers” Dr Suomi says.
“We also need more information about what types of help these children need and through which service it should be accessed. Is it through family welfare services, or is it through gambling help services, which is primarily aimed at adults?”
For parents living with gambling harm, the effect the situation has their children can be a great source of stress and worry.
“A lot of these families are falling apart, their lives can be quite chaotic and it’s a terrible thing to cope with,” Dr Suomi says.
“The main thing I would say, as a clinician, is to seek help for yourself, no matter if you’re experiencing problems in relation to your own or someone else’s gambling. It’s the best way to start addressing some of the harm it’s causing, to the gambler themselves, but also to those closest to them.”
Dr Aino Suomi is a research fellow with ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies. She is trained in clinical child and family psychology and has been working in research on families exposed to addictions and other mental health difficulties since 2006.
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