Teen Vandalism

The US Department of Justice defines vandalism as “willful or malicious destruction, injury, disfigurement, or defacement of any public or private property, real or personal, without the consent of the owner or persons having custody or control.” Vandalism includes a wide variety of acts, including graffiti, damaging property (smashing mailboxes, trashing empty buildings or school property, breaking windows, etc.), stealing street signs, arson, egging homes or cars, toilet papering homes, and other types of mischief.

Why do teens engage in vandalism?

There are a number of reasons why a teen might vandalize property. They could be bowing down to peer pressure. Someone dared them to do it, or the girl they like admires someone else who vandalizes, or perhaps it could be part of an initiation in a gang. Sometimes teens make poor decisions when they are bored. For example, a teen might view stealing a street sign as a fun way to pass time where no one gets hurt. Another reason could be for revenge. A teen is angry at someone and tries to get back at that person by damaging their property. Finally, it is possible in the case of graffiti, that the teen considers their vandalism as a form of self-expression or art.

How does a parent know if their teen is engaging in vandalism?

Unfortunately, vandalism is very easy for a teen to hide. Unless they bring a street sign home as a souvenir, there is no ‘evidence’ to find, and rarely do they act differently than they normally do. That’s why it is important for parents to do two things: (1) simply talk about vandalism with your children and explain why it is not a good idea, and (2) know where your teens are at all times because a teen who knows his parent cares and is involved is more likely to avoid becoming a vandal. We also offer some prevention tips at the end of this article.

How does a parent explain the problems vandalism cause?

It is important that parents explain how to distinguish pranks from vandalism. Often, teens think vandalism is a ‘victimless crime’; in other words, they don’t believe they’re hurting anyone by spray painting graffiti on a brick building, or tossing a few eggs at a neighbor’s car. Help them see the ramifications of their actions. Explain to them that vandalism costs taxpayers a lot of money because the property must be repaired and the crime must be investigated. That takes money away from other important things that your teen may care about. For example, because the school has to use money to cover up graffiti, they may have to cut out art programs. Besides repairing damage, there are other high costs to teen vandalism. Publicly viewable vandalism changes the atmosphere of a place. It may give the impression that the people in the area do not value their space and that the area is not well-protected and perhaps unsafe.

If you find out your child has vandalized something, the best consequence is to make them clean it up and/or pay for repairs. When they have to scrape off the gross, dried egg and they see that it takes off paint, the message will be loud and clear. If you happen to have a graffiti artist on your hands, then it’s important to provide them with a sanctioned place to stage his art or opportunities to put the talent to a positive use.

Finally, it’s important that parents communicate that vandalism is a crime. If they are caught, they can be charged with a crime and that will stain their permanent record as they try to go to college and start a career.

What is the best way to prevent vandalism?

First of all, if you see an area that has been damaged or defaced by teen vandalism, report it immediately. If it’s your own property, make any necessary repairs as soon as you are cleared to do so by local authorities. Often, vandals will re-hit an area if they believe nobody is watching or nobody cares that it has been defaced.

But one of the best ways to keep teens from engaging in vandalism, or really in any negative or risky behavior, is to provide teens with positive options to use their free time. Encourage your teen to take up a sport, club, exercise class, or extracurricular activity. Allow them to get a job babysitting, mowing lawns, or walking dogs, which will instill a strong work ethic and help them earn extra money while keeping them busy. Check the YMCA, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, and other youth nonprofits for safe teen activities. Often, teens can take classes at the local community college and transfer the credits to the college of their choice after high school. They can take most electives without a prerequisite, and might enjoy the taste of adulthood that goes along with taking classes at a higher learning institution. For more information on this idea, please read our previous blog “Are Extracurricular Activities Important?”


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