What It’s Like To Have A Parent With A Gambling Addiction

Content warning: This article discusses problem gambling. If you are recovering from or directly impacted by problem gambling, you may wish to disengage for your own wellbeing. 
Parents keep a lot of things from children in the name of protecting them. In Sarah’s*, 33, household, this was a toxic relationship with gambling. And she’s not alone.
Our country’s love of sport and pub culture is well-documented and — some might say — is central to our national identity. This could also explain why gambling is so popular here in so-called Australia. The latest statistics in the 36th edition of Australian Gambling Statistics show that, in total, Australians lost more than $25 billion on gambling in 2018-19. Of this colossal sum, $12.7 billion was lost to gaming machines alone.
In the research, “gaming machine” is synonymous with “poker machine”, or as we endearingly call them, the pokies. With the exception of WA (where they are restricted to the casino), pokies can be easily accessed from pubs, clubs and hotels across the country. With almost 200,000 gaming machines in Australia, half of which are in NSW, it’s not difficult to see how we got here.
When most think about problem gambling and its impact on relationships, they tend to feel bewilderment, and an inability to understand the appeal. Most people would probably wonder, why would you pour your hard-earned money into a lifeless machine when so many people are struggling to afford rent? 
For Sarah there was no shortage of love and laughter at home growing up. But home could also be a place of angst and mistrust, of revolving periods of silence and suspicion. As an adult, she is slowly coming to terms with acknowledging the events of her childhood. “It was a lot: the friction and manipulation, the secrets and half-truths, the late-night driving-by-the-club to see if she could spot my parents’ car in the car park,” she shares. “And of course, the unkept promises.” But like many children of problem gamblers, she has found strength in learning about the science of addiction. That addiction is a brain thing — a chemical thing. It’s not about willpower and it’s certainly not about morality. 
Dr Aino Suomi is a researcher and psychologist who has recently been part of a national study exploring the effects of problem gambling on family relationships. The research involved talking to adult children of gamblers and hearing their stories of what it was like having a gambling parent.
“In the research, relational impacts were more strongly felt and more devastating than the financial impacts of parental gambling, which is interesting because everyone always says the financial impacts are the worst for children,” says Dr Suomi, who works at the Australian Catholic University as well as the Australian National University.
Professor of Psychology at the University of Adelaide, Paul Defabbro, echoes the devastating impact of gambling on relationships.
“Gambling is a very secretive thing. Problem gamblers don’t come home smelling of alcohol — it’s hidden. So it usually results in a gradual loss of trust and a gradual disengagement from the family,” he says.
For many, another unanticipated side effect of being the child of a problem gambler is the way it shapes their relationship with money. Sarah shares that the way she views and values money seems vastly different to the way her peers do. For her, money doesn’t bring with it a sense of security. Dr Suomi says that this is common. “For people who have experienced gambling harm, it might actually feel unsafe to have money around,” she says. “Because they know it has the power to fuel the gambler’s addiction.”
“Lending my parent money often meant avoiding weeks of silent treatment and awkward dinners, but it also meant a single question would begin playing on a loop in my mind — 'Am I enabling them?',” Sarah says. “I always knew the answer was yes, so loan or no loan, the feelings of guilt and self-doubt were inevitable.”
To manage this, Dr Suomi recommends setting firm boundaries with problem gamblers, but of course this isn’t easy, particularly when the person with a gambling addiction is a parent. Professor Defabbro recommends that people in a similar situation should be firm and supportive at the same time. He also says being a support person for a gambling addict is about being there to listen when they want to talk about it. “Help [them] with practical things like managing [their] money,” he says. “And be a distraction —  make life better so they don’t need an escape.”
It’s heartbreaking to see someone you love fuel their own self-destruction. But for Sarah, it's become more obvious than ever that addiction does not define her relationship with her parent. She has also begun to understand that while the addiction isn’t their fault, it’s their responsibility, not just hers, to begin healing.
If you or anyone you know is affected by gambling, please contact Gambling Help Online. Support is available 24/7.
*Name has been changed for privacy
Gemma Pol is a Wiradjuri, Ngemba and Paakantji woman living on the lands of the Yugambeh-speaking people.

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