How to help a loved-one with

a gambling problem

DO you want to help someone with a gambling problem but are not sure what to do? It can help to understand how they are feeling and what stage of change they are in. If someone feels understood they are more likely to talk openly and honestly, which will allow you to develop a plan together.

The person who gambles may experience shame and remorse, which can be compounded by an added sense of guilt caused by an awareness of their behaviour’s impact on others. Experiencing these emotions can be overwhelming and may not allow them to think clearly about their actions. Often these distressing thoughts can lead to ongoing gambling.

They may also feel a desperation to try and recoup money that was lost and this can lead them to behave in ways that appear to be ‘out of character’. Such behaviours can be a shock for family and friends.

As a result you may feel angry, hurt and betrayed. It can be difficult dealing with these emotions while trying to understand the person whose behaviour has contributed to you feeling this way. This is normal. Finding ways to help the problem gambler and yourself can minimise the impact that gambling has on you.

When someone starts to change their gambling behaviour, there are often different stages that they move through. These include:

1. No problem. If they are in this stage the positives of gambling outweigh the negatives to the gambler. They enjoy gambling and don’t see it as a problem.

2. Thinking about it. People at this stage feel ambivalent about their gambling. Often they enjoy it, even though they know that it costs time and money. If they are in this stage they might be thinking about making a change.

3. Getting ready. People in this stage feel ready to control or stop their gambling and have made the decision to do something about it. They have scheduled a time in the very near future in which to start making changes.

4. Taking action. They have begun doing the work on changing their gambling. People in this stage say things like “I am doing something to change my behaviour”. They should be getting together strategies that they can use to help them change their behaviour. Support is important for the gambler at this time as they may be experiencing different emotions as they reflect on the consequences of their gambling.

5. Maintaining change. This stage can be hard. It is when people have identified all the things they need to do to change their behaviour and they have started to put these into place. What they need now is practice, practice and more practice. Maintenance is the time to turn new behaviours into a habit.

6. Slips and falls. They may have a slip up and start gambling again; it is a common part of the process of change. A lapse can be a way of finding out how to adjust the plan to stay on track.

Understanding these stages of change can help you decide the best way to respond and the most appropriate support to provide. For example, you may be ready for your friend or family member to start making changes, while they may still be thinking about it and are not ready or sure that they want to change. Accepting and working within the stage of change that the other person is in is absolutely crucial to helping someone with a gambling problem. You should try not to push someone into a stage of change they are not ready for.

Giving money to someone who gambles can be a difficult dilemma you may have to face. It can reinforce or reward gambling behaviour which may contribute to that behaviour continuing.

Consider setting up a system that rewards positive and deters negative behaviour. For example, you might consider not lending money if they continue to gamble; however, if they cut back or stop gambling you might offer to help pay off a bill. Keep in mind that when the gambler has paid all their debts, it can be a time when they are vulnerable to relapse. Some gamblers may begin convincing themselves that once the debts are paid off a small gamble may be acceptable.

How to talk to someone

about their gambling

OFTEN the person who is gambling doesn’t think that they have a problem. Sometimes family and friends will spot the problem first, because the gambler might be convincing themselves that everything is fine when really it isn’t. It’s important to let the gambler know the reason you’re concerned is that you care about them.

It’s also helpful to use positive communication rather than being confrontational or critical. You can try talking about how you’re feeling by using ‘I’ messages to lessen defences and keep lines of communication open. These are some examples, but it’s important to be genuine and talk to the gambler in a natural way.

  • “You’re my friend and I’m upset because I see you doing things that are really risky.”
  • “I love you and I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Talk to me about what’s going on.”
  • “I can see you’re not happy at the moment and it upsets me. I want to help.”
  • Once you’ve started the conversation listen carefully to what they have to say in response and be patient. Don’t jump in or cut them off mid-sentence, as this might make them defensive.

    Being calm and caring is really important, but don’t allow them to make excuses for their gambling, and certainly don’t help them out with money as this could make the problem much worse.

    Seeking help

    Try to ensure that those who require assistance, support and treatment for problem gambling issues can get the help they need. Here are some useful contacts and numbers.

    Dunlewey Addiction Services, 247 Cavehill Road, Belfast BT15 5BS Web: Email: Telephone: 028-90392547

    Gambleaware Ireland, 16/17 South Terrace, Cork. Web: Email: Telephone: 021-4316776 or 1800 753 753

    Gamblers Anonymous, Teach Mhuire, 39 Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin 1 Web: Email: Telephone: 01-8721133 or 087-7485878 (Dublin), 087-2859552 (Cork), 086-3494450 (Galway), 085-7821045 (Tipperary), 087-4266633 (Kerry), 087-1850294 (Waterford) and 048-90249185 (Belfast)

    Problem Gambling Ireland, Viewmount House, Viewmount Park, Dunmore Road, Waterford City Web: Email: Telephone: 089-2415401 (text for a call-back)

    Rutland Centre, Knocklyon Road, Templeogue, Dublin D16 YV04 Web: Email: Telephone: 01-4946358 (24 hours)

    The Rise Foundation, Carmelite Community Centre, Aungier Street, Dublin 2 Web: Email: Telephone: 01-76451531

    For young people with a gambling problem, visit