A Parent’s Guide to Teen Gang Involvement

It may go without saying that teens who are involved in gangs are going to have some type of mental health problem. Due to the violence that members of gangs witness as well as inflict on others, teens who are in gangs may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, Anxiety and other disorders.  Furthermore, if a teen is involved in a gang in the first place, that alone can indicate needs for acceptance, low self esteem, history of family violence, and more.


There is a close relationship between teen gang involvement and the psychological health of teens. If you know of an adolescent who is involved in a teen gang or spending time with one, the following article may provide useful information on how to protect your teen as well as get the support they need.


What is a Gang?


A gang is typically a group of young adults or teens who tend to participate in criminal and violent activity. Gangs often choose a sign, symbol or color to represent them. They frequently choose an area of a community as their territory, and as many communities have seen, many gangs will have war with each other and be violent with one another.


The official definition developed by the Department of Justice includes the following:


An association of three or more individuals whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation, frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti; and whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.


Why Do Teens Join Gangs?


Often teens or young adults who are attracted to gangs have significant unmet needs, such as a need to be accepted by a group or a need to be seen as tough. This is one of the dangers of gangs for teens. Although a teen might finally feel a part of a group, feeding his need to be accepted, that teen will likely end up engaging in violence. Other reasons why a teen might join a gang include the following:


Intimidation: Some gang members are forced to join a gang, especially if their presence in the gang will facilitate criminal activity. Some join to intimidate others in the community who may not be involved in any gang activity.


Criminal Activity: Some teens might join a gang to engage in criminal activity and benefit from the profits.


Protection: Some teens may feel intimidated by the gangs in their neighborhood and join a gang to find protection.


Identity or Recognition: Some gang members gain certain status in the community that they wouldn’t have outside of the gang.


Teens who might be more vulnerable to joining a gang are those who have witnessed violence, experienced trauma, or suffered a major loss. Sadly, many teens do not recognize the many dangers that come with gang involvement. Instead, they are drawn to a gang for the reasons mentioned above. And frequently parents do not know their teen is involved in a gang until it is too late.


What are the Dangers of Teen Gang Involvement?


Perhaps the dangers of teen gang involvement is obvious. The harm to self and others, the legal ramifications, and the destruction of property. Gangs exist in every state, and a gang member is 60 times more likely to experience death by homicide than the general population. Sadly, one-fourth of gang members are aged 15-17, and the average age for a gang member is 17 to 18 years old. There are more males in gangs than females, although the number of females in gangs is on the rise.


In addition to the severe risk of harm or death, there are also mental health risks that parents and caregivers should be aware of. In fact, mental health problems often get worse when teens join gangs.


Depression: According to Michigan State University, gang membership is associated with greater levels of depression, as well as a 67 percent increase in suicidal thoughts and a 104 percent increase in suicide attempts. One study found that teens who join gangs had significantly higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts than those who weren’t involved in gangs.


PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological illness that develops as a result of experiencing a traumatic event, including being involved in violence. In fact, up until recently, it has been thought that those who are the victims of violence are at risk for developing PTSD. However, research indicates that simply being a witness to violence can be just as traumatic. This is true of teens that have witnessed domestic violence between their parents, have been exposed to violence in the news, and who have witnessed violence in their urban communities.


What Are the Signs of Teen Gang Involvement?


According to National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, gangs are the source of much of the serious violence that occurs in the United States. Sadly, many gangs actively seek teens because of their vulnerable need to be accepted. There are over 24,500 youth gangs in the United States and the number of teens and young adults that are involved in teen gang activity is more than 772,000.


Here are a few signs that can indicate whether your teen might be involved in a teen gang or gang-related behavior:


  • Sudden changes in clothing worn by your teen, especially if it involves wearing the same color schemes all the time.
  • A desire to hide activities from you.
  • Changes in who your teen’s friends are.
  • Loss of interest in family activities
  • Declining interest in school (including dropping grades) and extracurricular activities.
  • Having relatively large amounts of money without a clear explanation
  • Run-ins with the police and other authority figures
  • Known gang symbols on belongings, including books and clothing.


What Can I Do to Help Prevent Gang Violence?


Although gang violence and the presence of gangs continue to be a major problem across the country, there are steps that parents and other concerned individuals can take to help prevent teen gang violence. These are:


Get involved. Notice what’s going on in your community, such as vandalism and graffiti, and report it to the police. You might also attend town hall meetings, go to community events that discuss neighborhood violence, or other become involved in an anti-gang related project. You might also join forces with other parents with similar concerns.


Stop graffiti. When you see graffiti, it is a sign that a gang is claiming territory. You might see graffiti on walls, houses, sidewalks, or billboards. You can report it immediately to the police, take pictures of the graffiti and then try to remove it.


Notice the behaviors of your teen. If you live in an area that has gangs and especially if you are concerned about your teen, stay aware of your teen’s behaviors, any clothing changes, selection of friends, and involvement in criminal activity. Use the indicators above to determine if your adolescent may be involved in a gang. If you have good reason to believe that your teen is a member of a gang, contact law enforcement and any neighborhood groups you may be a part of.


Parents, police, and neighborhood groups working together can all help curb teen gang violence. If you feel your son or daughter is a part of a gang, contact a professional in the community you trust. It’s important that  you and the rest of your family have all the support you need in order to create safety for your teen.