Will Your Child Grow Up to Be a Gambler? Impulsivity in Kindergarteners Could Be Warning Sign
By Hugh C. McBride

Kindergarten teachers and other early childhood experts often claim to be able to predict which of their young charges will do well later in life, and which ones are destined for troubled futures.

A team of Canadian researchers believe that these claims may be legitimate – and they’ve got the data to support their assertion. A study that was conducted at the Université de Montréal, Canada, has revealed that kindergarten students who were described by their teachers as highly impulsive are at increased risk for engaging in gambling behaviors as early as sixth grade. The study was published in the March 2009 edition of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

“Our results suggest that behavioral features such as inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity at school entry represent a vulnerability factor for precocious risk-oriented behavior like gambling in sixth grade,” the study’s authors wrote.

Predicting Risky Behaviors
According to March 3 article on the ScienceDaily website, the researchers began their study in 1999, when they collected data on 163 kindergarteners with an average age of 5.5. Highlights of their analysis include the following:
·        At the beginning of the school year, teachers were asked to complete a questionnaire rating their students’ inattentiveness, distractibility, and hyperactivity on a scale from one to nine (with higher values indicating a higher degree of impulsiveness).
·        After six years, when the children were an average of 11.5 years old, they were interviewed by phone and asked whether and how often they played cards or bingo, bought lottery tickets, played video games or video poker for money, or placed bets at sports venues or with friends.
·        After considering other behaviors that may be associated with teen gambling, including parental gambling, a one-unit increase on the kindergarten impulsivity scale corresponded to a 25 percent increase in a child’s involvement in gambling in sixth grade.

The thought of middle-schoolers making a few friendly wagers may strike some adults as far less worrisome than many other fears that regularly plague modern parents – but the Canadian researchers noted that the relative “innocence” of adolescent gambling can soon be supplanted by much more troubling behaviors.

“Problematic gambling in adults is associated with substance use, depression and suicide, psychopathology, poor general health and a multitude of family, legal and criminal problems,” the authors wrote. “Data suggest that in most cases, youthful recreational gambling predates pathological gambling in adulthood.”

The Problem with Problematic Gambling
Also referred to as “pathological” or “compulsive” gambling, problematic gambling can be just as devastating to a person’s life as alcoholism or drug abuse.

The Mayo Clinic describes compulsive gambling as “a serious condition that can destroy lives,” and The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) characterizes the disorder as a progressive addiction that manifests itself via the following behaviors:
·        An increasing preoccupation with gambling.
·        A need to bet more money more frequently, including “chasing” losses (making progressively larger bets in an attempt to win back money).
·        Restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop gambling.
·        A loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, and negative consequences.

“Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences,” the NCPG website reports. “If you pay all of a problem gambler’s debts, the person will still be a problem gambler. The real problem is that they have an uncontrollable obsession with gambling.”

A Threat to Young People
In a May 17, 2006 interview with Catherine Donaldson-Evans of Fox News, J. Michael Faragher of the University of Denver Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center noted that the increased prevalence of gambling on television and over the Internet has exposed thousands of teenagers to an enticing activity that may have devastating consequences.

Faragher told Donaldson-Evans that the nature of the teen brain makes young people more susceptible to potentially problematic habits such as gambling, and predicted that as many as 12 percent of young gamblers will eventually develop an addiction to the behavior.

Donaldson-Evans’s article also featured study findings that would be echoed half a decade later by the Université de Montréal researchers:
A 2004 Yale University School of Medicine study … found that adolescent gamblers were more likely to report depression and drug and alcohol use or dependence than non-gamblers.
Lead researcher Wendy J. Lynch and her colleagues concluded that “adolescent-onset gambling is associated with more severe psychiatric problems, particularly substance use disorders, in adolescents and young adults.”
Taking Preventative Action
The good news about the Canadian study is that it offers a window of opportunity for parents and other caregivers to intervene on behalf of children who may be heading down an unhealthy path.
In a March 3 interview with CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta advised parents that a few simple strategies can help their children develop the impulse control skills that will benefit them in a number of ways, including lessening their likelihood of developing problems with gambling:
·        Encourage your children to “stop, look and listen.” Experts say that teaching children to focus on their environment, observe their surroundings, and listen intently to all conversations can help control impulsive behavior.
·        Play a “focusing” game when you are with your children. For example, when you are outside, have them listen to the sounds of nature and name them for you, or tell them to search for five different colors in their environment. These types of interactions will help them become more attentive and focused.
·        The bottom line when teaching your child good behavior skills is to lead by example, so pay attention when people are talking, don’t interrupt, stay focused when working on a project, and remain mild-mannered when reacting to a situation.

Dr. Gupta told CNN that these activities are most effective when practiced with children between the ages of 3 and 6.

If your child continues to display problems with impulse control or other negative behaviors as he approaches his teenage years, a range of professional intervention options (including outpatient counseling, wilderness therapy programs, and therapeutic boarding schools) are available to help him – and you – address and overcome the problems before they cause lasting damage.