4 Reasons Kids Enter Gangs & How To Help

 01. Spiritual factors/confusion/disengagement 

Kids who lack a spiritual connection to their communities, their families, their peers, themselves, and a power stronger than themselves (i.e., God) are often in desperate search for meaning. Meaning that offers an identity, offers hope, and offers direction. A spiritual connection to things in our lives has a way of giving us an identity and providing for us a certain level of security and certainty.

02. Social, emotional, and psychological factors/support

The downward spiral of gang-involvement tends to dominate communities that are underprivileged and impoverished. The social status of gang-membership provides a type of “protective-shield” from other gangs, bullies, and tyrants of a neighborhood. Gang membership is often the last resort to “remedy” bullying and peer pressure or feeling lonely and unaccepted. But does that make these kids bad? The social affiliation to gangs can lead to learned behavior which in turn leads to an infiltration of negative values and perceptions of reality. The innocent kid desiring to avoid social pressure or loneliness has now entered a realm they are unfamiliar with. The “leader” or longer-standing gang-members are not interested in “protecting kids” or providing friendship, but rather possessing their mind and ultimately their heart. Antisocial behaviors are seen as powerful and authoritative. Once the youth becomes affiliated with the gang, behavior then becomes more like the “leaders” of the group. A rebellious “I don’t care” attitude with oppositional and defiant overtones begin leading to the development of an emotional and psychological bond between members. Not only is the youth feeling accepted and approved of (emotionally and psychologically), but also the youth begins to feel powerful and in charge of his or her destiny. This is, of course, just one example of how some kids become involved in and remain apart of gangs.

03. Culture and substance abuse factors

Certain regions, cities, and states have a direct influence on the level of criminal activity and violence that influences the life, behavior, and rebellious nature of a youth. In Pennsylvania, for example, cocaine is a common and primary threat based on its high level of use and abuse, accessibility, distribution, and association with violence. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, cocaine is the primary drug of abuse and is the drug of choice for adolescents in the state. The National Drug Intelligence Center states that in 2001, 11% of treatment admissions for cocaine abuse were under the age of 25. Pennsylvanians are well aware that “the number of drug-related shootings in southwestern and western Philadelphia increased drastically in 2000,” according to the Philadelphia Police Department. Cultural influence and substance related problems are often to blame for poor decision making and gang involvement. VIDEO: http://youtu.be/tBpFdmv7F6s

angry teen photo
Photo Credit: vanes_hud

04. Genetic factors

Ongoing research has suggested a link between antisocial behavior and a deficit involving the enzyme MAO (Mono-Amine Oxidase). MAO is a naturally occurring enzyme that metabolizes neurotransmitters such as dopamine or serotonin. Low levels of activity of the MAO-A gene has been said to result in an excessive breakdown of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters that keep humans calm. Without a proper breakdown of the enzyme, there is an increased urge to react aggressively. More research is needed to strengthen the evidence for this claim, however.

In addition, a combination of genes and environment influence and shape behavior as well as brain development. Kids who are reared in underprivileged neighborhoods, with high levels of violence, and who have a genetic predisposition to certain behavioral or psychiatric disorders are at an increased risk of developing antisocial and oppositional behaviors. Children who are also exposed to early trauma in the form of domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, witnessing a traumatic life event such as a murder, rape, etc., can also lead to oppositional and defiant behaviors, primarily if the trauma is unresolved.

So what can we do to become more aware of our kids and their social clichés?

  • Try to empathize with the youth but also keep your eyes on overall behavioral change(s)

Keep your eyes open for behavioral or emotional changes. Also be mindful of changes in choice of clothing, choice of friends, or a reduction in pro-social/positive behavior. Most teens have irritable, defiant, and self-seeking behaviors but the intensity of these behaviors should always be considered. If a behavioral reaction seems very disproportionate to the trigger, it is important to talk to the youngster and consider seeking help if things remain rocky. If the youngster starts wearing certain types of clothing, coming home late or bypassing curfew, using profane language, or modeling after negative images, something is up. It is now time to have a talk.

  • Be watchful of social clichés

If you are a parent or caregiver, keep a look out for the types of social interactions your kids are engaging in. Does your child’s friend hang out late? Are their friends idle? Are they kids who oppose adult authority? Use your intuition.

  • Give one-on-one time

Your time is the youngster’s benefit. It will pay off in the long-run. Kids who seek out gangs are often lonely and in search of companionship. While kids may enjoy receiving material possessions or social rankings as a result of their anti-social behaviors, most kids in gangs are lonely and confused about who they are. They are longing for adult connection. Keep in mind that kids will benefit the most from a loving, positive adult who spends time with them and gets to know who they really are. A positive role model is very powerful.

  • Be upfront about friends and social interactions, but not exclusive or short-sided:

A parent once said to me: “Back in my time, kids were kids! They did not socialize online or use their devices to engage. We played outside and did not go home until it got dark out.”  It’s important to understand that times are different and kids today are way more advanced than they use to be. It is important to teach our youth how to evaluate the pros and cons of developing certain friendships. If the kid, for example, has a reputation for being a rebel, becoming friends may not be such a good idea. If the kid has a reputation for being studious and focused, your kid’s chances are better. We want to encourage these kind of associations (on or offline). We also want to support making social connections in-person and not online. Online social interactions can lead to more trouble than you need. Watching for the types of kids our youth get involved with is very important. We want to secure positive role models for our kids but also avoid making pre-judicial judgments that can exclude good kids with a rough family-life. We don’t want to prejudge, just evaluate.

  • Educate, educate, educate

Educating our youth to the negative consequences of engaging with antisocial clichés is important. We need to teach our kids very early to be aware of the consequences of getting involved with gang-members. Kids need to know reality. What often looks “cool” to them from the outside may not be so good once you get connected.

  • Get involved with at-risk kids and model empathy to your children

Nothing can equate with giving your time and unconditional love to youths in need. Check out LAMP (Learning Assistance and Mentoring Partnerships) in Pennsylvania http://www.familyguidance.net/programs.htm if you’d like to sign up to mentor a youth. Speak to your children about what these kids often need and encourage them to reach out to help as needed. You want to develop a passion within your child/teen to be the “light” or be a role-model without becoming a victim to their confusion.

In order to understand our youth culture and benefit them (and all of society) in the long-term, we should be open to de-criminalizing them and reaching out to help them evaluate their core values, and their perceptions of independence and popularity. Our goal should be to pacify their emotional need for belonging.

We should step out of the zone of comfort and reach for the lives that may never reach for us.


Note: This article was originally published on Sep 1, 2012 but has been updated to reflect current research.