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Gambling’s intergenerational burden

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By Patrick Gallus

When someone experiences harm from their own gambling, they are not the only one affected. Like a stone hitting the surface of a pond, the harms caused by gambling ripple outwards. For every person who experiences harm from gambling up to six other people in their life are affected.

Even as we gain a greater understanding of how gambling can hurt the person who gambles, research into how ‘affected others’ are harmed remains limited.

It’s a subject that the Australian National University’s Dr Aino Suomi, a psychologist and academic, has spent significant time investigating. Recently, she led research into how children are harmed by a parent’s gambling.

… the harms caused by gambling ripple outwards.

‘The research evidence in this area is remarkably scarce,’ Dr Suomi says. ‘So our study fills a real knowledge gap in both practice and academic literature about the impacts of parental gambling on child wellbeing.’

As part of the study Gambling harm experienced by children of parents who gamble, Dr Suomi and her team surveyed 510 people, including 287 adults whose parents had gambled when the survey participants were children. The researchers conducted additional interviews with 20 people from this group.

Serious harms to children

Participants shared their firsthand reflections on what life was like growing up in a household where one or both parents gambled.

The majority talked about not having enough money due to gambling – going without food, activities or school materials. In many cases, they had strained relationships with their parents. Some had to drop out of school to look after siblings and earn money to keep the family home. A significant number of them also experienced serious mental health issues.

The researchers were surprised that the harms experienced by children also occurred at the lower, or non-problematic, levels of gambling by parents.

Some had to drop out of school to … earn money to keep the family home.

‘We knew parental problem gambling can manifest in all sorts of short- and long-term difficulties for children,’ Dr Suomi says. ‘But the study revealed that lower levels of gambling by parents also directly caused quite severe negative consequences for their children, like verbal abuse, psychological distress, or even witnessing violence in the home.’

When compared to a control group of people who were not exposed to regular parental gambling, the 287 adult children of parents who did gamble regularly were more likely to report current depression, anxiety, intimate partner violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poorer family functioning within their family unit.

Parents identify different types and degrees of harm

Parents who gambled were also surveyed. They reported perceptions of fewer and less severe harms to their children as a result of their gambling, compared to the harms children reported experiencing as a result of their parents’ gambling.

Predominately, parents reported that their gambling caused financial harms to their children, whereas children were most likely to report psychological distress or poorer family relationships because of their parents’ gambling.

… children were most likely to report psychological distress or poorer family relationships …

Dr Suomi notes that it’s a pattern found across other research.

‘Gamblers themselves often see the negative impacts of their gambling as less severe than how they are experienced by others,’ she says.

Gambling becomes normalised across generations

Study participants talked about how gambling was normalised in many of their households and reported that intergenerational transmission was a common occurrence – from grandparent, to parent, and to children and siblings.

More than a quarter of the interviewed participants had experienced gambling problems of their own. Those who didn’t gamble explained that this set them apart from their immediate and extended families.

‘ … participants talked about never wanting to put their family … through similar experiences …’
- Dr Aino Suomi

A pattern picked up by the researchers was that children exposed to regular non-problematic gambling (i.e. gambling where the risk of harm was lower), were more likely to develop issues with their own gambling later in life than those who had been exposed to parents who experienced high levels of gambling harm.

While suggesting caution due to limitations in the size of the study, Dr Suomi says this was an interesting finding.

‘The interviews shed some real insight into this, and many participants talked about never wanting to put their family or loved ones through similar experiences to what they went through with their own parents.’

How kids can get help

The findings from this study and others conducted by Dr Suomi suggest that children exposed to parental gambling are likely to come into contact with a range of social, health and welfare services. Dr Suomi says that her research illustrates the need for better coordination of approaches to identify these children, and the kinds of supports from which they and their families could most benefit.

Help is available for young people who are worried that someone close to them might be experiencing gambling harm:

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