Talking to Youth About Gangs — 4/26/2017
In communities with gang issues, youth receive many complex messages every day in their homes, schools, and neighborhoods. Gangs should be avoided, and yet they seem to offer power, support, prestige, and economic incentives to their members. Some adults give conflicting messages about gangs and may even accept money from the illicit activities of gangs, while expressing dismay at youth gang involvement.
Adults often feel uncomfortable discussing sensitive issues like gangs and violence with young people. However, if youth are encountering gangs in the school or community, they need opportunities to talk candidly about these issues with adults. The significance of an anti-gang message increases when it comes from a person who has a caring relationship with the youth. Here are some factors that adults should keep in mind when talking about gang-related issues with youth:
- Start at the youth’s level of understanding. What is he/she aware of? What is he/she seeing at home, in the neighborhood, and at school? It is important to be sensitive to the youth’s level of awareness in order to avoid alarming young people who may be less aware of gang problems, or downplaying a problem of deep concern.
- Take a strong, no-tolerance stand against gangs and violence. Youth should not be allowed to glorify gang activity, dress in gang-style clothing, or use gang-related slang or insults during school hours or during program activities.
- Talk about the negative effects of gang membership on youth, their families, friends, schools, and communities. These may include the following: increased risk of injury to oneself or family members/friends, difficulties in school, pressure to commit criminal acts, and consequences of committing criminal acts (incarceration, lack of future job opportunities, causing harm to others).
- Emphasize to youth that their choices matter because their happiness and well-being are important not only to themselves but to the people who care about them. Emphasize to youth that they are responsible for their own choices, and make them aware of the consequences that they may face.
- Try to incorporate discussions about positive life choices into everyday conversations.
- Help youth to think through conflicting messages about gangs and violence. Youth who have been exposed to violence in movies, music, television, and video games may have detached and unrealistic perceptions about violence. Adults should confront these false ideas and help youth understand that acts of violence have long-lasting effects on individuals, families, and communities.
- Emphasize the youth’s good qualities. Many youth who are already involved in gangs or delinquency receive negative feedback every day. Try to emphasize the youth’s special attributes, skills, and efforts to make good decisions. Be specific in your praise, rather than general, and point out good choices: “It is very impressive how you handled that conflict so maturely. You could have become angry, but you were able to maintain your control and walk away.”
- Consistency is key. Youth need to hear consistent messages about gangs delivered by the adults they know well: parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors, and religious leaders.
- Remain accessible and involved with youth. Long-term, caring relationships with adults provide youth with an incentive and a support network to stay out of gangs.