Gang membership can serve many seemingly practical purposes in a young person's life. Developmentally, early adolescence is all about fitting into a group and gaining independence from family -- so the camaraderie that comes with being in a gang is alluring to many young people. Children who come from abuse or neglect, who live in a dangerous area, who aren't involved with school and community activities or who live in poverty are especially at risk.
Gang membership is a largely social decision, according to the Fairfax County, Virginia, website. Joining a gang, which will often treat its new members like brothers, often seems like a better lifestyle than staying at home with a violent, neglectful or sexually abusive family. Peer pressure plays into it as well: if a child's best friends are joining a gang, he may feel like the only way to continue that friendship is to join, too. Many forms of media glorify the gang lifestyle, promising money, status, belongings, a sense of identity, parties and sex.
A gang may be able to offer a kid a place to stay, along with many luxury items she's never had. If a kid lives in poverty and her family lacks the means to provide even basic necessities, she may be tempted to join a gang to better herself and her family, or simply to obtain what she's never had. Failure to succeed in school may discourage kids from feeling like they'll ever be good enough to work a real job, so gang membership may seem like a desirable alternative.
"If you can't beat them, join them," sums up the feeling many young people have regarding gang membership. Plenty of children feel threatened by local gangs, and if law enforcement is inadequate, the kids' only choice for protection is to join a gang. Likewise, if a child is being abused, being in a gang may make him feel tough enough to protect himself from his abuser. A feeling of lack of safety in a high-crime neighborhood, availability of firearms and a culture in which gang membership is the norm also influence kids.
What Parents and Adults Can Do to Help
Be aware of warning signs that your child may be involved with a gang. If he starts wearing only one color or one style of clothing, using hand signs, an unfamiliar nickname or new slang, suddenly having more money, using graffiti or carrying weapons, it may be time to get a counselor or other development professional involved. It's very difficult for kids to break away from gangs -- the easiest way is to fade out membership slowly, by having other activities that take precedence, like a new job or volunteer activities. However, you may need to move your family to a different area altogether to cut ties.