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Teen Gambling: Warning Signs of Addiction that You Need to Know

During the pandemic, my 19-year-old son began playing poker with local friends who were home from college on break or attending school virtually.

Sometimes they’d play outdoors or in a garage. It seemed like harmless fun—a game they were learning simultaneously. But, as time passed, I found my teen watching poker games on television and studying online tutorials after 1 a.m. As the weather grew colder, he and his pals took their games online. Suddenly, I could see that he was losing or winning upwards of $50 a night.

I’d been happy that he was having fun with friends and discovering a new pastime, but I quickly began to wonder if this was getting out of hand.

Especially because I have a relative who’s battled a gambling addiction for most of their life.

Was my son’s new hobby simply a fun way to connect with friends and pass the time during a difficult year? Or, was it the start of a problem I needed to address before it worsened?

To help me gain a better understanding of the situation, I reached out to Jeremy Frank, a psychologist and certified alcohol and drug counselor, with a private practice in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Unlike drug or alcohol addictions, a gambling addiction often has no obvious physical signs or symptoms to accompany the condition. Because of that, it’s referred to as a “hidden illness,” Dr. Frank explains.

If you’re concerned that your teen has a problem, take the time out to carefully think about everything you have observed, he advises.

“Write it down in advance of a conversation with your teen because sometimes parents get tongue-tied and nervous with these conversations as our teens will definitely push back,” Dr. Frank says.

Find a time to talk when teens are alert, and there haven’t been any recent conflicts, he suggests. Start by telling them you want to talk to them and ask them when is a good time, as this gives them some sense of control. As you begin the conversation, tell them you love them, and you are just concerned, he adds.

“Ask them if they have ever had any concerns about their gambling, betting or gaming,” he advises. “Tell them what you’ve observed. Ask them what they like about betting, or gambling.”

Rather than try to change their mind or counter their answers, simply listen.

“You want them to vent and be able to talk to you without feeling judged, criticized, or shamed,” he says. “Consult a professional yourself to have an initial session to get ideas for how to talk to your teen in particular. Allow that person to take a full history of you, your teen through you, and make sure that professional has expertise in gambling and or addiction in general.”

Warning Signs for Teenage Gambling Addiction

Dr. Frank offered the following warning signs that could indicate a problem:

  • Withdrawal – Restlessness or irritability when attempting to reduce or cease gambling
  • Preoccupation – Frequent thoughts about gambling experiences, whether past, future, or fantasy
  • Lying – Hiding the extent of the behavior by lying to friends, family, or a therapist
  • Bailout – Turning to friends, family, or a third party for financial assistance as a result of gambling activities

If you recognize these behaviors in your teen, Dr. Frank says to tell them that you would like them to see someone for individual therapy, consultation, or evaluation. He also recommends screening counselors via phone by asking them if they do this work specifically.

Assure your teen that you want to them to have a person, place, and time to explore their relationship with gambling. Tell your teen that you don’t need to know what they’re sharing with their therapist. But if you notice that the situation is not improving or worsening, you may have to step in and speak with their therapist.

Are Some Teens More Susceptible Than Others?

Given my relative’s history with gambling, I asked Dr. Frank if some teens were more prone to get hooked on gambling activities than others.

The answer: Yes.

“Teens who are introverted are more at-risk than those who are extroverts,” he says. “Though teens who have lots of friends and seem socially well-adjusted can still be at high risk.”

Additionally, he notes that teens who have had any sort of trauma in their lives are at greater risk.

“Young people who have less guidance and more freedom and independence are at greater risk because there are fewer checks and balances and less monitoring,” he says. “Teens in states with easier access to casinos, online gaming, and gambling and betting apps are at risk due to access as well. Young people with fewer hobbies or interests should be monitored in an effort to help them find more meaning and purpose in their lives.”

Armed with this information, I have talked to my son about the potential pitfalls of his new hobby and will continue to guide him toward making responsible choices. I’m betting that having these conversations often will keep the odds in our favor.

Liz Alterman’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She’s also the author of a young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting.

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