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Why Youth Join Gangs

By: the California Crime and Violence Prevention Center

Young people join gangs for a variety of reasons, which can be influenced by conditions in their family, school and neighborhood. A vulnerable child seeks love, protection and the acceptance of his or her peers. Youth, who lack parental guidance and support, or opportunities for positive involvement with their peers, often turn to a gang to meet these needs. Once a child is lost to a gang, it is hard to get him or her back because the gang can literally become a surrogate family for that young person. The loyalties, love and dedication normally found in traditional nuclear families are transferred to the gang family. Members can develop intense bonds with other members and feel a need to protect them.

Many times, problems at home act as a cohesive factor for gang members. Other reasons for joining a gang include: excitement, physical protection, peer pressure, family tradition, perceived financial gain, an avenue to gain ”respect,“ being wanted and valued by a group, being feared by others, getting girl friends, gaining notoriety or out of boredom. Many gang members doubt their ability to achieve at school or to obtain job skills and employment. Many prospective gang members are youth who are not successful at school and are not receiving the attention and support they feel they need from their family. Gang involvement and violence may be symptomatic of family, social or psychological dysfunction.

The impact of these problems can be prevented and minimized by authority figures and community leaders understanding the dynamics of gang behavior. This understanding includes learning how to deal with gang behaviors and finding out what alternatives and resources are available to change them.

Behavior Changes

At school, the young person who joins a gang often exhibits signs of his or her new status. He or she may wear gang clothing and become disrespectful toward the teacher and others. The new gang member may intimidate or fight other students to gain a reputation for being tough. He can pick on a particular victim and constantly harass that youth. Being a school bully helps establish a reputation for a willingness to engage in violence. Eventually, the new gang member will beat up the victim. But, before doing so, the gang member will announce his or her intentions to friends and other students so they can be there to cheer the gang member on and spread the word about his or her “toughness.” Word of these actions quickly travels within the gang street culture.

“Respect” is being established for the new gang member and the gang. If there is no intervention, these actions can establish an environment of fear at school, around school and within the community. When at home, the new gang member’s defiance may or may not manifest itself in violence. This depends on his or her relationship with parents and other family members. However, if the family attempts to interfere with the child’s gang involvement by setting limits and increasing supervision, repeated confrontations may occur.

If there are strong family ties, many male gang members still maintain a degree of respect for their mothers. Sometimes, mothers can have a profound impact on their involved gang member son or daughter. Even if a young person resists the family influence a parent should not give up on family support. But family members should try to understand the difference between family support, denial and acceptance.

New gang members want to prove themselves and are eager to assist in gang-related crime such as thefts, drugs sales and assaults. In an effort to establish “respect” and trust, gang members often assist in major assaults such as drive-by shootings. Gang members can be respectful to staff and do not necessarily disrupt classroom activities. Doing well in school does not disqualify a person from being a gang member. Many gang members do not drop out of school and often maintain good grades. In such cases, gang affiliation may be overlooked until a major incident occurs.

There have been convictions of high school and college students, who had excellent grades, and who have worked and volunteered in the community, for gang-related crimes and murders. Some gang members lead double lives. A few gang members have been employed at Fortune 500 companies, as well as local and state agencies. Parents and teachers should not jump to hasty conclusions about their children and gangs.

The warning signs of gang involvement can be similar to normal behavior during adolescence. The key is to question the behavior if it appears to go beyond the norm. Staying well informed about your child’s activities both in and outside of the home will help you determine whether your child might be involved in a gang. If not informed, parents an form incorrect conclusions or fall prey to denial.

Signs that a Youth May Be Involved in a Gang

Gang involvement can begin as early as elementary school. Children as young as seven or eight years old have been recruited to work for gangs and have become gang members. Parents and educators should watch for signs that their children or students may be involved with gangs.

Changes in a child’s behavior or activities which can be early warning signs of gang involvement, include:

  • Decline in grades.
  • Change of friends.
  • Truancy.
  • Keeping late hours.
  • Alcohol and other drug use.
  • Having large sums of money or expensive items which cannot be explained.
  • Developing major attitude problems with parents, teachers or others in authority.
  • Glamorizing gangs.
  • Secretive or an abrupt change of behavior.
  • Withdrawing from the family.
  • Abrupt changes in music tastes, clothing styles.
  • The presence of body modifications, including tattoos, scarring, burns and brands.


Tell-tale signs of gang membership can include:

  • The presence of gang graffiti in the bedroom or on books, clothing, athletic shoes, posters and bedroom walls.
  • Wearing gang clothing or an importance placed on a certain color(s).
  • The use of hand signs to communicate with other gang members, siblings, teachers and parents.
  • Having photos showing gang names, slogans, insignia, hand signals or individuals involved in gang activities.
  • Using gang-style language.
  • Getting gang tattoos or gang insignias.
  • The disclosure of gang membership to police, teachers, siblings or parents.
  • Witnesses connecting the individual to gang activity.
  • Participating in gang activities
  • Associating with known gang members
  • Contacts by the police
  • Withdrawing from the family
  • Secretive or an abrupt change of behavior

Once in a gang, the child’s behavior can change either gradually or suddenly, but it generally follows a pattern. To be accepted by the gang, the new member must adopt a defiant attitude toward authority figures. This defiance may be expressed by disruptive or violent behavior at school or at home. It may also lead to frequent contacts by the police or a probation officer.