Q. My 16-year-old son attends weekly poker nights at a friend's house in the neighborhood. He assures me that the games are friendly and that they do not play with money. He has a part-time job delivering pizzas and gets a small allowance, but he has been asking for money from me and my husband lately and I worry that he may have a developing gambling problem. How do I confront him about this topic?
A. You definitely need to address your concerns with him, and when you do, watch your attitude and approach. You don't want him to turn defensive and by doing so paint him in a parenting corner where he'll be forced to lie or turn sneaky. With that said, realize that one of the basic rules in parenting is this: Any time a child asks for money, it's the parent's right and responsibility to ask what the child will be using it for.
Start by scripting your own version to the following statements. Use an "I'm perplexed" Columbo-esque manner, "Something doesn't make sense here. You work and receive an allowance. It seems you should have plenty of money. I'm aware that you play poker. While you say you don't play for money, putting your request for money together with the fact that you play poker concerns me. I fear that you might be gambling your money and mine away."
Whether he's gambling for money or not, he'll probably give you a sketchy accounting of his financial situation, while adding the ridiculousness of your concerns. If he is gambling he's unlikely to fess up. Nevertheless, by bringing it up, you're putting him on notice.
Before jumping to the conclusion that he's addicted to gambling, realize that many teens engage in risky behavior which will not necessarily lead to an addiction or bad habit. Some teens risk not studying for a test, hoping that miraculously they'll pass anyway. Some drink alcohol or take drugs without thinking of the effects doing so will have on their behavior or health. The consequences don't enter their minds. They're in it for the thrill and the hope that everything will be just fine no matter what.
Brain scientists explain it as compulsive behavior which is the result of an undeveloped cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that controls higher levels of intellectual functioning. Many teens make decisions on impulse and by wishing and hoping rather than by thinking and planning. Teens need skilled assistance from teachers, parents, and mentors to develop this "executive officer" part of the brain.
Your task, therefore, is to offer information. Read up on poker playing as related to gambling and offer him statistics about the likelihood of winning big. Simply offer this information in sound bites. Don't look for agreement but instead for him to be apprised of the perils inherent in playing poker that will hopefully result in a change in his behavior.
Also, play poker with him. You'll learn lots about him and his method of playing. You can model a healthy approach to the game. For instance, you can agree to bring to the game no more than $5.00. You can make nickel antes until you've played enough or one of you has lost your five dollars, at which time the game ends.
It would be wise to watch his Internet use. If he's frequently playing poker online for money, that would be a red flag telling you that he's acquiring a gambling problem.
Below are some signs he's developing a gambling addiction:
If you do fear your son truly is addicted to gambling, call the National Council on Problem Gambling at 1-800-522-4700.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, May 2006.
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