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Dollars and Daddy Issues

To be clear, I don’t hate my dad. In fact, Enrico is a great guy. However, family research makes it clear that parents’ choices affect their children, and for myself, my father’s gambling addiction had a significant impact on me.

I always heard more about[1] sexual infidelity in families as a significant stressor than financial infidelity, and that led me to think my family was the only one dealing with this issue. However, research shows that my family is not the only one. In fact, approximately four to six million people in the United States, or two to three percent of the population, meet the criteria for problem gambling.[1] Parental gambling affects children’s emotional outcomes,[2] attachment style,[3] and financial outcomes,[4] which in turn can have negative effects on children’s future relationships.

Despite negative outcomes, there are strategies families can use to become resilient with parental gambling. Although I have certainly experienced some of the negative effects, I’ve come up with creative ways to cope with trauma. My favorites are intellectualizing and coping with humor; I will be utilizing both throughout this article. My hope with this paper is to be able to support those going through a similar situation. You may not be able to change the choices that your loved ones are making, but there are tools to counteract the negative effects. I’ll now describe some negative outcomes of parental gambling and how you can avoid them.

Emotional Outcomes: Get Ready to Be a Sad Overachiever

As a result of financial strain due to gambling, my family experienced a lot of conflict. This conflict affected my own personality and emotional reactions. Studies have found that children of compulsive gamblers are more likely be under or over achievers (it’s me, hi) and struggle with substance abuse, gambling, and other risky behaviors.[5] Children of parental gamblers were also found to have an increased likelihood of mental health challenges such as depression or PTSD. This is a real catch-22 because individuals with PTSD are more likely to become gamblers themselves, and vice versa.[6] So, how do you change this cycle?

Be real with yourself: do you have maladaptive coping mechanisms that aren’t helping you? Maybe you don’t gamble to escape from reality, but is there something else that you do use? Emotional eating, perhaps? Yeah, me neither… leave me and my cannoli out of this. Anyways, recognizing these unhealthy habits and working on changing them to healthier habits (there are so many books on changing habits) will be a key part of breaking this intergenerational cycle of maladaptive coping.

Financial Outcomes: Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems?

As mentioned above, children of parental gamblers are more likely to become gamblers themselves…yikes. When your financial model (a fancy term for your parent) is using money recklessly, you don’t have the chance to learn and develop healthy financial habits.[8] However, some children are very purposeful about establishing positive financial habits to compensate for their parents’ poor financial habits;[7] these resilient individuals are known as “financial phoenixes.”

When studying the modeling-compensation hypothesis in the context of financial socialization, LeBaron-Black[9] and her team found that some children whose parents were bad examples of money management compensated by intentionally developing good financial behaviors. These healthy habits then led to levels of financial wellbeing almost as high as those with good intergenerational financial behaviors. This is hopeful for those who had not-so-great financial models, as there are many different interventions that can improve financial management such as financial literacy classes, YouTube channels on finance, financial therapists, and many more.

So, set yourself up for financial success by embracing financial education, and know that you are an individual with power to overcome the destructive financial modeling you’ve witnessed. Your parents’ actions may have created more obstacles for your development of healthy financial habits, but their actions do not need to define yours. Financial phoenixes (those who develop healthy financial behaviors despite poor parent financial socialization) have the second-best ratings of financial wellbeing. There is hope!

Relationship Outcomes: Good Luck Kid, You Don’t Trust Nobody

Avoidant attachment is commonly found in children with absent parents.[10] Avoidant attachment is characterized by believing that others are not reliable, minimizing the importance of intimate relationships, and believing the only person you can trust is yourself.[xi] If this description makes you feel called out, same, it is in fact resonating. To save you time and money on therapy (but actually, please go to therapy), here’s a little breakdown for why this is. This fear of abandonment comes from a gambling parent being absent, physically and/or emotionally. As a result, your needs were not met, and you learned that your caregiver(s) are not reliable and you can only rely on yourself.

As children with this insecure attachment style begin to form romantic relationships as adults, there is likely to be more conflict because of this emotional avoidance and distrust.10 Healing an attachment wound is difficult but possible.[11] Whether it be through mending the relationship with the gambling parent or forming healthy relationships elsewhere, lean on relationships that show consistency and sensitivity.

Acknowledge the effects your parental relationship had on you so you can have more successful relationships moving forward. Only engage emotionally with your gambling parent if it is an emotionally safe (read: not abusive) space. Understanding is often key to empathy and healing. Being able to forgive your gambling parent means accepting that they are a person with imperfections, and you can accept that and learn from that. See their strengths along with their weaknesses. Accepting that your parents aren’t perfect can often help with self expectations as well. Forgiveness is immensely healing for both the victim and the perpetrator. I also found that nurturing my relationships with my siblings—individuals who were also experiencing what I was—to be incredibly helpful. I could be a secure attachment figure for them, and they could be that for me as well. Pursuing peace in your family life will ultimately benefit everyone.

The Pros: How Adversity Brought My Family Together

Despite the challenges, there were many good outcomes of my family’s struggle with adversity. My relationships with my siblings have grown as we’ve banded together through parental conflict. As a result of these experiences, I now have a passion for studying family science with plans to go into marriage and family therapy, to take what I’ve learned personally and academically to strengthen and heal families. In addition, in talking to my dad I’ve learned a lot about the addict’s experience and how traumatic events can impact individuals and lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms. In the face of major adversity, families have no choice but to change;[12] too often that change is for the worse, but it can be for the better. Changing for the better in response to adversity is an ongoing process that requires patience and persistence. I believe positive outcomes are possible despite addiction challenges because of my personal experience.

Your experiences can be a strength to increase resilience and educate and assist those around you. I’ve spent years thinking that financial infidelity was something no other families have struggled with, but the research is contrary to this. Many families have gambling addicts that hurt the family dynamic. My hope in writing this article is that you will know that you’re not alone and there are actions you can take to heal and improve yourself and your family.

woman and her father

[1] Problem Gambling Awareness | Homeland Security. (2021, March 4).

[2] Jacobs, D.F., Marston, A.R., Singer, R.D., Widaman, K., Little, T., Veizades, J. ( 1989). Children of problem gamblers. Journal of Gambling Studies, 5, 261-268

[3] Estevez, A., Jauregui, P., & Lopez‐Gonzalez, H. (2019). Attachment and behavioral addictions in adolescents: The mediating and moderating role of coping strategies. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 60(4), 348-360.

[4] Li, X., Curran, M. A., LeBaron, A. B., Serido, J., & Shim, S. (2020). Romantic attachment orientations, financial behaviors, and life outcomes among young adults: A mediating analysis of a college cohort. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 41, 658-671.

[5] Jacobs, D.F., Marston, A.R., Singer, R.D., Widaman, K., Little, T., Veizades, J. (1989). Children of problem gamblers. Journal of Gambling Studies, 5, 261-268.

[6] Grubbs, J. B., Chapman, H., & Shepherd, K. A. (2019). Post-traumatic stress and gambling related cognitions: Analyses in inpatient and online samples. Addictive Behaviors, 89, 128-135.

[7] LeBaron‐Black A. B., Curran M. A., Hill E. J., Toomey R. B., Speirs K. E., Freeh M. E. (2022b). Talk is cheap: Parent financial socialization and emerging adult financial well‐being. Family Relations. Advance online publication.

[8] Rosa, C. M., Marks, L.D., LeBaron, A.B., & Hill, E.J. (2018). Multigenerational modeling of money management. Journal of Financial Therapy, 9(2), 54-74.

[9] Pistritto, M., Yi, M., McRae, K., Lindman, M., Cavalcante, I., Barros, J. Saxey, M.T., LeBaron-Black, A.B. (2023, April). Rise from the ashes: The modeling-compensation hypothesis applied to parental financial socialization. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Utah Council on Family Relations held in Provo, UT.

[10] Platt, R.A.L., Nalbone, D.P., Casanova, G.M., & Wetchler, J.L. (2008). Parental conflict and infidelity as predictors of adult children's attachment style and infidelity, The American Journal of Family Therapy, (36)2, 149-161.

[11] Smith, S. R., & Hamon, R. R. (2016). Exploring Family Theories (5th ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

[12] Patterson, J. M. (1988). Families experiencing stress: I. The Family Adjustment and Adaptation Response Model: II. Applying the FAAR Model to health-related issues for intervention and research. Family Systems Medicine, 6, 202–237.