Gambling, Gaming & Technology Use
Knowledge Exchange

The Stages of Change

People with addiction problems, such as gambling, go through similar stages when accepting the need to change and when making changes. A person who gambles excessively may move back and forth between stages before committing to making changes. You can have an influence on the person’s decision if you match your support to the stage of change that the person is in. (This can be difficult and may take some practice. For further assistance, please try our Self-Help Guide for Family and Friends or consider seeking counselling)

Stage 1: The person is not interested in changing

At first, the person may not believe that they have a problem or do not want to make any changes. When confronted the person may deny or explain away their gambling behaviour. They may think that the problem is a lack of money or even blame others for their situation. Often, they do not want to see a counselor because they do not think that their gambling is a problem.

You can:

  • Tell the person how gambling affects their behaviour, and how it impacts you and the rest of the family
  • Change activities that support gambling
  • Make sure the family’s money is protected. A legal advisor, financial advisor or gambling counsellor can help direct you
  • Learn about problem gambling and share the information with the person with gambling problems
  • Get support for yourself and begin to get your family life back in balance
  • Avoid arguing—it won’t help
  • Not help the person who is gambling to avoid responsibility for his or her actions
Stage 2: The person is unsure about changing

The person begins to see that their gambling may have some drawbacks. However, he or she may not be ready to give it up. It is not uncommon for people to take some time to think about making changes before they begin to take action.

He or she may:

  • Set a date for change
  • Be more willing to talk about problems
  • Be more open to your help

The person may be more willing to deal with the problem after a crisis of some kind, such as a big gambling loss, a threat to their job because of gambling, or coming to the end of their financial resources.

You can:

  • Not gamble with the person
  • Find out how the person can get help
  • Pass on the information in this guide and encourage the person to get help
  • Offer to go with the person to counselling
  • Share what you have learned about problem gambling and how it has helped you
  • Praise the person for wanting to make changes
  • Avoid situations that may trigger urges to gamble
  • Get emotional support for yourself
  • Set clear limits and tell the person what you will do if he or she keeps gambling
Stage 3: The person is preparing for change

The person begins to set clear goals to help change his or her gambling, such as setting time and money limits around their gambling behaviour. He or she may talk about making bigger changes soon. The person may be more willing to talk about the risks and rewards of gambling when he or she is taking a break from it.

You can:

  • Support the person’s changes and encourage him or her to get help from a problem gambling counsellor
  • Suggest that a trusted person manage his or her money
  • Discuss with the person how they can limit their access to cash or credit. This will remove a major gambling trigger (triggers are things that make you want to gamble).
  • Suggest other activities to replace gambling, especially at times when the person gambled the most.
Stage 4: The person is taking action

The person has reduced or completely stopped gambling. He or she is really working on the problem. This stage may take a lot of time and energy. As people try to change, they may slip and gamble again. They can usually get over these slips or relapses, and even learn from them.

You can:

  • Support the person as he or she replaces gambling with new activities
  • Support the person in his or her counselling
  • Consider couples or family counselling to improve communication and trust
  • Keep dealing with money problems
  • Keep focusing on your own needs and on getting family life back in balance (see the section below on Getting Your Life Back in Balance)
  • Understand that a gambling slip may occur. Try to maintain a balanced approach to gambling slips
Stage 5: The person is maintaining control

The person has stopped gambling for at least six months and is working to hold onto this success. Other problems may emerge as gambling is less of an issue. It’s important to work through these concerns to keep the risk of relapse down. Change efforts may move to new areas, such healing hurt relationships and restoring trust.

As we said above, gambling slips may occur and are not uncommon when someone is trying to make a change. A slip or a relapse can feel devastating to both the person with gambling problem and family members. Although a relapse can be very upsetting, the person with a gambling problem may learn from them and do better in future.

A relapse can help the person understand the problem better. In the end, it can strengthen his or her decision to change.

You can:

  • Keep supporting changes that bring more balance to family life
  • Try to improve family communication
  • Keep working to get the family’s money under control
  • Arrange finances to limit losses in the case of a relapse
  • Help the person identify and cope with gambling triggers
  • Reward efforts at change in both your loved one and yourself
  • Understand that the person may have relapses

Adapted from Makarchuk, K. & Hodgins, D. (1998). Helping Yourself: A Self-help Manual for Concerned Significant Others and Problem Gamblers. Calgary: Addictive Behaviours Laboratory, University of Calgary.

Prochaska, J., Norcross, J. & Diclemente, C. (1994). Changing for Good. New York: William Morrow.
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