Youth gang members are 60 times more likely to be killed than the general population. That startling statistic on GirlsHealth.gov is likely to stop many parents in their tracks. But it’s even more worrisome if you’ve seen signs that your own child is entering -- or already well into -- a gang. If your son or daughter hasn’t quite taken that leap yet, is there any way you can stop teen gang involvement before it starts?
Engage in Conversation
Yes, you’re busy and pulled in multiple directions -- family obligations, extended family pressures, work, your health, finances and even community volunteer efforts. But if you want to keep your teen out of a gang, it’s important to set aside time on a daily basis to talk to your teen. Not just a quick Q & A -- such as “how was school” and end of conversation -- but real, open discussions where your teen feels comfortable talking about any topic.
If dialogue between you and your teen has broken down, there are ample resources you can use to brush up on your family communication skills. Check out local parenting classes in your area, or read a book such as “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
Cater to Your Teen's Basic Needs
One of the reasons a teen might be attracted to a gang is to earn money to buy clothing, food, help pay for bills at home and even transportation. The more that you can provide these things for your child, the less likely this will be a factor for your teen. A common ploy of many gang initiators is to offer vulnerable youth items ranging from clothing to cars.
In today’s tough economic times, some parents might find it difficult meeting their children's basic needs. To make it a bit easier, assess whether getting a second job -- especially one you can do from home so you’re around to supervise your teen -- is an option. Create a monthly budget and stick to it. Reduce expenses as much as possible, and take advantage of discount shopping.
Encourage Your Teen to Get a Job
This not only helps your teen get her basic needs, it takes a bit of the pressure off you. But it’s also a defense against two other factors that can lure teens into gangs: the need to feel powerful and to have a sense of belonging. Your teen will also have the opportunity to learn skills, which boosts his sense of self-worth and gives him options, perhaps to be promoted within his company, or to explore other career opportunities later on. Teach your teen financial basics such as opening a bank account and saving a percentage of his income each month.
Let’s face it: some communities make it all too easy for a teen to be wooed into gang life. These neighborhoods are often rife with poverty, drugs, low-achieving schools, high crime levels, few job opportunities and even fewer recreational outlets. If you live in such a neighborhood, and are worried about your teen joining a gang, explore any opportunities to move to a better area.
Lay the Foundation Early
If you wait until your son or daughter is already a teen -- or even a preteen -- it could be too late. Keeping a teen out of gangs should start early. As the old saying goes: “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Creating a strong family unit is essential. Many gang members come from families where they don’t see strong role models, regularly witness domestic violence, or don’t feel loved and respected for who they are. Without a strong, loving parental influence, teens are more vulnerable to peer pressure to join a gang and get what they feel is missing at home.
Whether your child is a teen or toddler, practice these habits of successful families: Make sure your children feel loved and respected for who they are. Eat family meals together. Do activities together such as playing a sport, or going to the library, church, museums, galleries or local events. Be involved in your child’s education, attending parent-teacher meetings, school activities such as plays or athletics. Also, create strong links in your community -- with a church, community center, a sports coach, librarian or police officer -- so your teen has another adult to turn to if you’re not around.