8 Ways to Keep Your Teen Out of Gangs (and yes, they do exist in your community!)
There are approximately 1.4 million active gang members in more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. Over 40% of these members are children under the age of 18, and almost a quarter are female. Gangs are highly prevalent throughout the country, and they actively recruit members as young as 9 years old. Children are motivated to join a gang for a variety of reasons, including to protect themselves, feel a sense of belonging, give in to peer pressure, or make money. Parents must stay vigilant to keep their children away from gangs. Following are 8 ways parents can protect their teens:
- Be aware of the risks and signs that your teen may be involved in a gang. Children at risk of gang involvement often grow up in an area with heavy gang activity, have a family member in a gang, suffer from low self-esteem, or have too much unstructured or unsupervised free time. Parents should confront their teen if they see them wearing one or two particular colors of clothing, displaying specific symbols on personal items or tattoos, having unexplained money or goods, carrying a weapon, withdrawing from family, getting in trouble with the police, or coming home with unexplained physical injuries.
- Spend quality time with your child. Even when your teen may appear to be shutting you out, stay in touch with your teen’s world and let him or her know that you care. Give him or her affection. Try to really listen to your child, offer praise when appropriate and take an interest in their hobbies. Be a good observer of their behavior and what influences them. If the family is the source of love, guidance, and protection that youth seek, they are not forced to search for these basic needs from a gang.
- Be a positive role model. 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. Do not use drugs. Express your negative opinions about gangs. Do not allow your children to wear, write, or gesture any gang-associated graffiti, markings, signs, or symbols. Take action in your neighborhood, such as creating a neighborhood alliance or removing 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.
- Be engaged in your teen’s world. Get involved in his or her school activities. Know your child’s friends and their families. Closely monitor where your child is and what they are doing.
- Involve your teen in extracurricular activities. Afterschool programs, sports, art, community organizations or religious groups with positive messages and adult supervision 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.
- Encourage academic success. Strong education, good study habits and workforce training are directly related to a youth’s positive development. Young people who successfully participate in and complete their education have greater opportunities to develop into successful adults.
- Instill positive life skills. Youth that know how to handle peer pressure, resolve conflict, and solve problems are less likely to become gang members, be bullied, or become victims. You can learn more about how to teach these skills in our previous blogs: Teaching Problem Solving Skills and Managing Peer Pressure.
- Explain the consequences. Talk with your child about the dangers (to them 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. Tell your teen the following:
- You will live in fear of getting caught, killed or going to jail.
- You will be forced to choose the gang over your friends and family, hurt innocent people, and perform criminal activity that can ruin your future.
- You will be exposed to violence, drugs and inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Gangs demand loyalty. Members talk about being part of a family, but they can turn their backs on each other in a heartbeat.
- Gang leaders take the largest cut of all profits. You will earn very little, regardless of how big a role you took in getting the money.
- Having a criminal record means you will forever have difficulty getting a job, leaving the country, or voting.
- You will never feel good about yourself.
It’s important that parents are not naïve when it comes to gangs. You may live in a good community, but gangs are still a present threat in every part of America.
If your child is already in a gang, it is a good idea to seek professional help to get your youth out of the gang. Generally, teens need to want to get out of the gang (they won’t do it for their parents or because it’s the right thing to do). For a teen to have that internal motivation, they must see hope in their future.