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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #7
May 2007

Gambling in Childhood and Adolescence: A Guide for Parents

By Emily M. Verbeke & Karin Dittrick-Nathan, PhD
University of Denver

What Is Youth Gambling?

Gambling often is thought of as an adult behavior, but in recent years the appeal of gambling has increased for youth. Youth gambling is similar to adult gambling in that it is an activity that implies an element of risk, where money or something of sentimental or monetary value could be won or lost by the participant. Specifically, youth gambling activities can include sports betting, poker, dice, bingo, cards/ dice/slot machines (not at a casino), cockfights, games of skill (basketball, bowling, golf, and pool), horse or greyhound racing, pitching quarters, internet gambling, raffles, scratch-and-win tickets, staterun lottery games, and pull tabs. Video game playing is not typically considered gambling since one does not bet on the result of the game.

Is it legal? Often there are questions about youth gambling. Is it illegal? Is it potentially addictive? If so, how does it differ from other forms of addiction? First, gambling age requirements differ from state to state and country to country; also, minimum age requirements vary for types of gaming (casino gambling vs. playing the lottery). A general rule of thumb is that gambling is legal for a young adult eighteen years of age or older. However, because of the many variations in gambling laws, individuals should check local statutes.

Why youth engage in gambling. Individuals not only gamble for fun but also because of the potential to win money; to experience the excitement they feel from gambling; to “escape” from problems at home, school or other areas of their life; and to alleviate feelings of depression, loneliness or other unpleasant moods. A youth’s propensity to gamble may be increased due to easy availability and social acceptance, a preference for immediate gratification and underdeveloped long-range planning ability, a hope to “get rich quick,” a means of increasing social standing, and a feeling of disconnect at home, school or other settings.

Problem gambling is similar to other addictions such as drug and alcohol abuse in several ways, but is different in other significant ways. Problem gamblers, like drug or alcohol abusers, have an inability to stop or control their behavior. Problem gamblers and persons addicted to substances are preoccupied with their addiction and need to increasingly engage in the behavior to achieve a satisfactory “high.” A significant difference between problem gambling and substance abuse is that problem gambling is often a “hidden” addiction, not readily visible or detectable. Another significant difference is the severe financial impact that out-of-control gambling has on a problem gambler’s life. Once an individual decides to stop drinking, he or she is on the road to recovery. However, once an individual stops gambling, there still remains the pressure to account for what are usually very large sums of lost money. This fact increases the temptation to “chase losses” in an attempt to win back money to alleviate debt.

All addictions can result in negative social and emotional consequences. While problem gamblers do not experience damaging physical effects (e.g. overdose, liver damage) as a direct result of the gambling behavior, they do experience severe social consequences related to deception and loss of trust of friends and loved ones. These social consequences make it important to recognize when a youth may be at-risk for developing a problem or may have already developed a problem. For some, what begins as a way to spend time with friends ends with isolation and despair.

Who Is At Risk for Developing a Gambling Problem?

Youth with high levels of certain personality characteristics such as impulsivity, extroversion, and sensation (thrill) seeking may be at higher risk for developing a gambling problem, and current research suggests that more males than females are problem gamblers. Also, adolescents with lower self-esteem may be at higher risk for developing a gambling problem. Youth problem gamblers are likely to have a parent with an addiction (gambling, alcohol, or drug) or have parents involved with illegal activities. As with many addictions, youth problem gamblers have higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts.

Please note that each case of problem gambling is unique. The above list includes trends within the research of problem gambling, not exclusive characteristics. For example, females can have serious gambling problems even though some research indicates males are more frequently identified as problem gamblers. Also, parents who are uninformed about warning signs, and who may consider themselves to be occasional social gamblers, may unwittingly expose youth who may be at risk of developing a gambling problem to increased opportunities, such as by hosting weekly poker parties.

What Are Some Warning Signs?

Youth gamblers who are at-risk for developing a problem will often display many tell-tale signs. The following are behaviors that an at-risk youth may exhibit:

Associated Behavioral Changes at Home and School

  • Unexplained absences from school
  • Dropping grades
  • Asking for/borrowing money from peers
  • Withdrawal from the family and peers
  • Behavior changes (e.g., is day dreaming, anxious, moody, less participative, appears tired in class, changes in sleeping and eating patterns)
  • Lying, cheating, or stealing in school or at home
  • Spending unusual amount of time reading newspapers, magazines, and/or periodicals having to do with sports
  • Selling personal belongings
  • Unexplained charges on credit card bills
  • Unexplained large amounts of money or other material possessions (e.g., cars, clothes, jewelry)

Gambling-Specific Behaviors

  • Playing gambling type games on the internet
  • Intense interest in gambling conversations
  • Preoccupation with thinking about and planning to gamble
  • Using gambling “lingo” in his/her conversations (e.g., bookie, point spread, underdog or favorite, exaggerated use of the word “bet”)
  • Excessive bragging about winnings

What Can Parents Do to Help?

Problem gambling among youth can be difficult to detect because it is a hidden addiction with no obvious signs (e.g., smell of liquor on breath, bloodshot eyes). Since the symptoms of youth problem gambling are not visible, it is important to routinely inquire about gambling, similar to how parents routinely inquire about drug and alcohol use. If your child is interested in and participates in gambling, you can ask simple questions such as, “Have you ever felt the need to bet more and more money?” and “Can you tell me, honestly and accurately, how much you’re gambling?”

It is important for parents to be educated and understand youth gambling so they are able to evaluate gambling behaviors in their own children. As with many challenging issues for youth, it is important to talk about gambling. It is also important for parents to examine their own attitudes and habits around gambling. Youth may not know that online gambling is illegal for everyone in the United States and that it is illegal for minors to participate in all gambling venues designed for adults. Parents can monitor increasing involvement in gambling-related activities. As a parent, you can:

  • Respect your child’s privacy but recognize that an increase in isolation can be a warning sign.
  • Be aware of the amount of time your child spends playing gambling type games on the internet. Many poker sites offer free lessons.
  • Respectfully track internet sites that your child visits. Use parent control options to block inappropriate sites.
  • Monitor cell phone usage for any repeated calls to unknown numbers and respectfully investigate frequent calls to unknown numbers.
  • Look for a time to raise the topic of gambling naturally. For example, after viewing a commercial for upcoming gambling events such as the World Series of Poker on ESPN or after passing a billboard advertising a casino, ask your child what he or she thinks about the advertisement and gambling.
  • Ask your child to share his or her ideas and feelings about gambling before offering your own information about gambling.
  • Provide opportunities within a variety of settings to discuss gambling. Your child may have difficulty articulating thoughts and feelings about gambling during an initial discussion. But after thinking about the issue further, he or she may have more opinions and questions to share and discuss.

How Can I Help Prevent My Child From Developing a Gambling Problem?

Parents can help identify troubling gambling behaviors in their own children and can help shape their recreation and social environments. If your child wants to engage in gambling at home or with friends, effective prevention can include the following:

  • Discuss responsible gambling; that is, set a monthly budget for entertainment and decide together how much will be spent on movies, poker with friends, and other leisure activities.
  • Discuss how much time your child spends gambling and whether or not the amount of time eliminates opportunities to do other things.
  • Emphasize that gambling is not always a harmless (or legal) activity — for some it can become a problem, similar to consuming alcohol.
  • Explore whether your child views poker as a “sport.” Media tend to glamorize poker and represent it as a game of skill, suggesting that it’s only a matter of learning how to win big money.
  • Discuss the role of luck in poker and gambling. Utilize hands-on activities (e.g., flipping coins) to gain an understanding of the difference between statistical probability and superstition. Even if a tossed coin comes up heads eight times in a row, the odds are still fifty/fifty that the ninth toss will be tails. The order of cards in a deck is random.
  • Provide interpersonal and social opportunities for your child to learn successful coping and adaptive skills. This can include joining clubs, volunteerism, youth groups, part-time employment, and athletic sports.
  • If your adolescent is employed, help him or her set up a savings account and set goals for how the savings will be used (e.g. college, travel, clothing).
  • Ask your child to let you know if he or she has a friend that may have a gambling problem.
  • In recent years, casino nights have become popularized as fundraising events and safe alternatives to after-prom parties. Encourage fellow parents, school teachers, and administrators to consider alternative activities that are not potentially addictive. If a decision is made continue to host casino nights, appropriately provide problem gambling education and prevention materials.
  • Talk with school administrators about policies related to gambling at school. It is not uncommon to see daily poker or dice games in the cafeteria during lunch. Include students in these discussions to better understand the extent and nature of these activities, and work with school personnel to develop (and enforce) appropriate school policies.

Gambling has become more accepted than ever before as a pastime, not only for adults but also for youth. With the widespread proliferation of gambling opportunities an increase in gambling problems is also becoming evident. As parents, you have a unique opportunity to prevent problems before they become more serious. Problem gambling has a devastating impact on families. Fortunately, there is help and hope.

Where Can You Go for Help?

If you are worried that your child or someone you know may be having problems related to gambling, con- fidential help is available. Any of the resources listed below are excellent sources for more information. Also, the national toll free number 800-552-4700 can provide additional resources and information in your area.


Websites for Adults

  • Gamblers Anonymous® (GA) — http://www.gamblersanonymous.org

    Provides answers to frequently asked questions about gambling as well as a meeting directory of local GA meetings.
  • Greater Area Toronto YMCA — http://www.ymcatoronto.org/gambling/

    Interactive site for parents and teachers which includes articles and three different age level curriculum guides for teachers.
  • International Centre for Youth Gambling — http://www.youthgambling.com

    Includes research articles, resources for parents and educators as well as many links to additional helpful websites.
  • National Council on Problem Gambling — http://www.npgaw.org

    Provides a variety of valuable informational sheets directed at specific populations of problem gamblers (youth gamblers, student athletes) as well as information about myths surround problem gambling.
  • Oregon Addiction Services — http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/addiction/gambling.shtml

    This site includes resources for educators & parents.

Websites for Children and Adolescents

These websites include games and activities which interactively teach children and adolescents about gambling. Talk It Out provides a confidential chat room.


Dickson, L. M., Derevensky, J.L., & Gupta, R. (2002). The prevention of gambling problems in youth: A conceptual framework. Journal of Gambling Studies, 18, 97–159.

Johnson, E.E., Hamer,R., Nora, R.M., Tan, B., Eistenstein, N., & Englehart, C. (1988). The lie/bet questionnaire for screening pathological gamblers. Psychological Reports, 80, 83–88.

Ladouceur, R., Boudreault, N., Jacques, C., & Vitaro, F. (1999). Pathological gambling and related problems among adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, 8(4), 55–68.

Vitaro, F., Arseneault, L. & Tremblay, R. E. (1999). Impulsivity predicts problem gambling in low SES adolescent males. Addiction, 94, 565–575.

Emily M. Verbeke is an EdS Candidate at the University of Denver; Karin Dittrick-Nathan, PhD, is on the faculty of the school psychology program at the University of Denver.