The impact of gambling problems on families

AGRC Discussion Paper No. 1 – November 2014

How do family members cope with gambling problems?

  • A model of family impacts suggests that the coping strategies family members employ can protect them from developing emotional and physical health problems due to the chronic stress of having a gambling problem in the family.
  • Family members of people with gambling problems are most likely to use coping strategies that involve trying to change the excessive gambling. These strategies may not be very effective in reducing emotional and physical health problems often experienced by family members.

Given the impacts reported by the family members of problem gamblers, there is surprisingly little information available about how people cope with gambling problems in the family. The stress-strain-coping-support model displayed in Figure 3 (Orford, Copello, Velleman, & Templeton, 2010) has been applied to the family members of people with gambling problems (Dowling, Suomi, Jackson, & Lavis, 2014b; Krishnan & Orford, 2002; Orford, Templeton, Velleman, & Copello, 2005). This perspective argues that the chronic stress of having a gambling problem in the family results in family members experiencing emotional and physical health problems, but that the ways family members cope, and the social support they receive can provide greater or lesser protection against the effects of this stress.

Figure 3: The stress-strain-coping-support model as applied to alcohol and other drugs Figure 3: The stress-strain-coping-support model as applied to alcohol and other drugs - as described in text.

Source: Orford et al. (2010)

Coping is the central element in the stress-strain-coping-support model. Using this framework, several studies have found that family members most commonly employ "engaging" coping strategies. These strategies involve trying to change the excessive gambling by using emotional and controlling strategies, such as starting arguments about gambling, becoming moody, and making threats and ultimatums (Dowling, Suomi et al., 2014b; Krishnan & Orford, 2002). These findings are of concern given that this form of coping has not been very effective at protecting families when drug and alcohol problems are present (Orford et al., 2001). Research testing the degree to which social support and more adaptive forms of coping buffer the impact of having a problem gambling family member has yet to be conducted.

Other evidence of the coping strategies employed by families comes from a focus group of eight participants, conducted in Canada (Makarchuk, 2001). See Box 4 for examples of strategies that they found effective and ineffective in coping with problem gambling family members.

Box 4: Coping strategies employed by family members

Ineffective coping strategies:

  • nagging;
  • screaming;
  • constantly expressing disapproval;
  • threats;
  • ultimatums;
  • punishing;
  • rationalising;
  • emotional pleading;
  • financial assistance;
  • protecting the image of the gambler;
  • bailing the gambler out of jail;
  • accompanying the gambler to gamble;
  • asking the gambler to leave a venue;
  • providing referral information.

Effective coping strategies:

  • setting boundaries/limits;
  • taking one day at a time;
  • going to church or finding spirituality;
  • discovering new interests or activities;
  • releasing guilt and responsibility;
  • recognising gambling as an addiction;
  • gaining support;
  • taking financial control;
  • seeking professional assistance;
  • giving respect to the gambler;
  • making a conscious effort to stop helping the gambler to gamble;
  • supporting the gambler in treatment.

Source: Makarchuk (2001)