Gangs: Reasons Youth Join, Warning Signs and Prevention Tips

Gangs are a scary phenomenon in our nation. They are becoming more prevalent, increasingly violent, and more sophisticated in their crime. The FBI reports, “About 20,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs with approximately 1 million members are criminally active in the U.S. today. Many are sophisticated and well organized; all use violence to control neighborhoods and boost their illegal money-making activities.” Gang members generally range in age from 13 to 24 years old, but can be as young as 9. Gangs can include all ethnic groups. Many gang members are boys, but 10 percent of all gang members are girls and the number is growing. Additionally, gangs are not limited to a socioeconomic status or location as they filter out into more rural areas.

Reasons Youth Join Gangs

Middle Earth just hosted a poll on its website asking visitors to indicate what reasons they believe cause youth to join gangs. Over 80% of respondents believed youth were looking for a sense of belonging. Over half of the respondents believed that youth were in fear of being victimized. These are definitely two major reasons sited by youth, but actually, there are a number of different reasons youth join which we have summarized for you here:

  • A sense of belonging, acceptance and loyalty. Gangs may offer a sense of identity to their members and a way to gain attention or status. Kids who do not have strong ties to their families, communities, schools or places of worship may turn to gangs for companionship and as a substitute family.
  • Companionship, training, excitement, and activities. Gang members, recruiters and the media glamorize the gang lifestyle. They prey on children who lack a positive support system at home.
  • A sense of self-worth and status. Some are drawn by parties, girls or drugs. Others feel they will receive more respect as a gang member and are seeking power.
  • The need for physical safety and protection. In neighborhoods and areas where gangs are present, kids sometimes feel, or are told, that belonging to a gang will provide protection from other gangs.
  • Peer pressure. If friends or family members are in a gang, kids may be pressured to join a gang. Some youth grow up in a neighborhood where gangs are almost a way of life.
  • Financial gain.Being in a gang is often seen as a way to obtain money or possessions.
  • Failure to realize what being in a gang means. Kids often do not fully understand the danger, risks and legal problems associated with being in a gang. If they don’t have alternative activities and have too much unsupervised free time, they are at risk.

Signs that a Youth is Involved in a Gang

The FBI has posted this list of warning signs for gang involvement:

  • Admits to “hanging out” with kids in gangs
  • Shows an unusual interest in one or two particular colors of clothing or a particular logo
  • Has an unusual interest in gangster-influenced music, videos, movies, or websites.
  • Uses unusual hand signals to communicate with friends
  • Has specific drawings or gang symbols on school books, clothes, walls, or tattoos
  • Comes home with unexplained physical injuries (fighting-related bruises, injuries to hand/knuckles)
  • Has unexplained cash or goods, such as clothing or jewelry
  • Carries a weapon
  • Has been in trouble with the police
  • Exhibits negative changes in behavior such as: withdrawing from family; declining school attendance, performance, behavior; staying out late without reason; displaying an unusual desire for secrecy; exhibiting signs of drug use; breaking rules consistently; and speaking in gangstyle slang.
  • Carrying objects that can be used as weapons.

Ways Parents Can Help Prevent Gang Involvement

  • Spend quality time with your child. Let him or her know that you care. Try to really listen to your child, offer praise when appropriate and give affection. Be a good observer of their behavior and what influences your child. If the family is the source of love, guidance, and protection that youths seek, they are not forced to search for these basic needs from a gang.
  • Get involved in your child’s school activities.
  • Be a positive role model and set the right example. Take a firm stand against illegal activity. Never accept money or gifts that may have been obtained illegally. Report all crimes.
  • Know your child’s friends and their families.
  • Encourage good study habits and academic success. Strong education and training are directly related to a youth’s positive development.  Young people who successfully participate in and complete education have greater opportunities to develop into reasonable adults.
  • Teach your child how to cope with peer pressure and develop good conflict/resolution skills.
  • Encourage your child to participate in positive afterschool activities with adult supervision (recreation centers, organized sports, youth groups). Recreational programs such as sports, music, drama, and community activities help build a sense of self-worth and self-respect in young people.  Youth involved in such activities are less likely to seek membership in a gang.
  • Take action in your neighborhood (create a neighborhood alliance, report and remove graffiti). Graffiti removal reduces the chance that crimes will be committed.  Since gangs use graffiti to mark their turf, advertise themselves, and claim credit for a crime, quick removal is essential.
  • Talk with your child about the dangers and consequences (to the youth and to the community as a whole) of gang involvement. Let your child know that you don’t want to see him or her hurt or arrested.
  • Explain to your child that he or she should NOT:
    • Associate with gang members
    • Attend parties or social events sponsored by gangs
    • Use hand signs, symbols, or language that is meaningful to gangs
    • Wear clothing, including specific colors, which may have meaning to gangs in your area

Finally, if you suspect your child might be in a gang or considering joining, try to get into family counseling. While the problem may not be yours, it can best be worked out as a family. Report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement.


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