Low Self Esteem Drives Children to Join Gangs; Therefore, Gang Violence Can Be Reduced by Empowering

Can We Stop Gang Violence?

Low self-esteem drives children to join gangs; therefore, gang violence may be reduced by empowering children in dysfunctional environments.

In order to understand how to stop gang violence, we need to first understand what drives youth to join gangs, then we can start to understand how to prevent gangs from forming in the first place. There are many reason why youth join gangs, but it seems that the most influential reasons including protection, recognition, respect, and power, all root in to one greater concept, low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is caused by feelings of insecurity, worthlessness, and hopelessness, and almost all are results of growing up in a dysfunctional environment that fails to fill the child’s physical and emotional needs. Children tend to develop low self-esteem when growing up in an environment where they are physically and emotionally abused by the adults that are supposed to protect and take care of them. Low self-esteem among youth is also caused by growing up in an inadequate community, which nurtures feelings of insecurity because it’s infested with crime. Low self-esteem might also be caused by incompetent schools and teachers who fail to adjust themselves and their classrooms to all kinds of children. Children with low self-esteem join gangs to compensate for their feeling of inferiority, because they crave power and control, and want to prove to others (but mostly to themselves) that they are tough and strong. But in most cases, youth in gangs will end up with even lower self-esteem, and will feel more hopeless than they did prior to joining a gang, which can cause them to become even more dangerous and violent. Since children with low self-esteem join gangs, and are main characters in the gang world, and because low-self-esteem is a result of a faulty environment, gang participation and violence can be stopped by empowering and strengthening struggling parents and communities, by providing those hard-day environments with adequate tools and social programs to create positive grounds to raise children.

Children become insecure and hopeless, and develop low self-esteem, when growing up in environments that lack the presence of nurturing positive adult role models. According to Professor of Sociology and Criminology Lewis Yablonsky’s article, “Poor Parenting Causes Some Children to Join Gangs”, for children to develop positive self-worth, they need proper adult role models in their environment growing up. Yablonsky points out that children evaluate themselves based on their parents’ reactions, and when children lack reinforcement or discipline from their adult role models, or experience it sporadically, they will become confused and insecure about their actions and abilities. Yablonsky also explains that children are very dependent on their parents in early life stages, and they need nurturing and caring parents whom they can trust to take care of them. Children that lack caring parents will feel responsible for finding their own ways to fill their emotional and physical needs because their parents aren’t consistent and stable, which will cause the children to feel neglected and distressed, and develop low self-esteem. An example of a child who experienced neglect is Louis Rodriguez, a former gang member, and the writer of the book Always Running. In his book, Rodriguez describes his childhood and life as a gang member. At the beginning of the book, Rodriguez describes his childhood thoughts after his family moved houses various times because of their insufficient financial situation. The difficult financial situation caused his parents to work numerous jobs, and not have the ability to take care of their children. Rodriguez remembers, “so much instability, of dreams achieved and then shattered, of silence within the walls of my body, of being turned on, beaten, belittled and pushed aside, forgotten and unimportant… I’ve been a red hot ball, bouncing around from here to there. Anyone can bounce me... I’m a ball. Whatever” (33). Rodriguez feels that his basic need of stable ground under his feet is irrelevant to his parents, and that his voice is unheard, nor counted, and no matter what, he will never have control over what happens to him. Rodriguez’s self-worth is inexistent, because his family’s instability causes his needs to be pushed back, and seem unimportant.

Not only instability and negligence cause low-self-esteem, also the effect of abusive parents. According to Yablonsky, when children grow up in an environment where they lack positive acknowledgment and compassion, where they are emotionally and physically abused, they will develop a misperception of themselves. Yablonsky explains that abusive parents tend to channel their frustration and anger at the world through abuse, but their children will interpretate it as a disciplinary response to own their actions. For example, in Yablonsky’s article, he mentions L.K. (little killer), a young thirteen year old gang-member who developed low self-esteem because of his fathers abuse. Yablonsky quotes L.K.’s thoughts of his father: “He would beat the shit out of me for no reason-just because he was loaded and mad at the world. I’ve always felt like a punching bag, or maybe more like a piece of shit. If my own father thinks I’m a punk, and a loser, maybe that’s what I am”. Yablonsky asserts that the random way in which L.K.s father abused him, caused L.K. to believe that his father thought that he is a loser, and since children’s self-esteem is mainly built based on their parent’s reactions, there is no chance L.K. could have a positive perception of himself. A child’s self-esteem is built or destroyed based on the way they are treated by their parents, and neglectful and abusive parents will cause their children to feel worthless and hopeless. In addition children’s self-esteem can be severely affected by other factors in their environment, such as the school and community which they grow up in. For example, when Louis Rodriguez started attending elementary school he spoke only Spanish, and had a hard time communicating in English. Rodriguez’s teacher sat him in the back of the class room, and gave him blocks to play with, instead of engaging him in the class materials. In Always Running, Rodriguez Remembers his experience in elementary-school: “I would put my lunch and coat away, and walk to my corner where I stayed the whole day long. It forced me to be more withdrawn. It got so bad; I didn’t even tell anybody when I had to go to the bathroom. I did it in my pants “(26). Once Rodriguez felt that he was an outsider, and felt that he didn’t belong to his classroom community, he became so insecure that he couldn’t even trust his teacher to help him fill his own basic needs. Children like Louis who experience constant instability and neglect from their environment, and children like L.K whose parents abuse them, become insecure and helpless, which translates in to low self-esteem.

Children who develop low self-esteem will often become gang members to compensate for their feelings of insecurity and helplessness; gang membership offers the false sense of protection, control, and purpose. According to various researches, youth join gangs primarily because they feel the need to protect themselves physically, but in many cases the physical threat that appears to require protection from is rooted in emotional insecurity. In the book, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice: Causes, Intervention and Treatment Programs, Rosalyn M Bertram and Jennifer Dartt, from the school of social work at the University of Missouri, describe why youth join gangs: “The number one justification for gang involvement is protection. Impoverished urban communities are breeding grounds for violence, and an adolescent without the protection that accompanies strong familial and social support is at high risk of being considered fair game”. According to Bertram and Darrt, when children grow up in an environment where they lack protection and guidance of adequate parents and family, they will feel the need to protect themselves from violence by grouping up with a gang that will have their back; moreover, gangs will seek out youth with low-self-esteem to join their lines, since they know that they are missing any kind of physical or emotional protection, that they can be bounced around like a ball, and used for the gangs’ interests. Youth join gangs from a weak emotional state, and as gang members they feel strength, acceptance and protection for the first time. Gangs will provide children with low self-esteem the platform to feel power and control by acting violently towards others; more important, the gang will serve as a place where the alienated and neglected youth can find each other and finally feel that they have support. As Bertram and Dartt continue to describe the drives of young gang members, in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice: Causes, Intervention and Treatment Programs: “Modern era gangs participate in “missions”, actively seeking out rivals as targets for violence. Carrying out these missions can heighten a youth’s sense of individual power, self-worth, solidarity and status among the peer group. By committing violent acts against “outsiders”, feelings of economic and social ineptitude are temporarily substituted with feelings of power and control. Participation in such violence demonstrates their toughness and proves their worth in the eyes of their peers” (247). We can learn that being part of a gang provides youth with feeling belong, and violent actions result in recognition and power, which substitute ever longing feelings of alienation and inferiority. But, even though youth with low self-esteem join gangs to compensate for those feelings, they will become even more hopeless and insecure after becoming gang members. For example, in Always Running, Rodriguez describes what he tried to achieve as a Las Lomas gang member, and the following despair: “I had certain yearnings at the time, which a lot of us had, to acquire authority in our own lives in the face of police, joblessness and powerlessness. Las Lomas was our path to that, but I was frustrated because I felt the violence was eating us alive” (113). Rodriguez’s gang existed because he and his peers felt hopeless and alienated from society, and the way they channeled their frustration was through violence; choosing violence caused Rodriguez to feel even more frustrated about the entire situation. In a later stage of the book, Rodriguez’s describes how his hopelessness, in addition to the habit of substance abuse which he acquired through his gang-members, led him to attempt suicide. Rodriguez remembers his thought prior to the suicide attempt: “Everything lost its value for me: love, life, and women. Death seemed the only door worth opening, the only road toward a future” (125). Rodriguez’s disparity, and his engagement in constant violence, made him feel emotionally numb, as if everything in his life was pointless. Rodriguez feels that he has no reason to continue living life when he feels trapped, where death is the only exit point he can see. Also the former gang-member and writer of the article “A Need for Power and Respect Encourages Gang Behavior”, Isis Sapp-Grant, self-esteem seems to become worse in progressive stages of her gang involvement, even though she became extremely involved in gang-violence, because hurting others caused her to feel noticeable and invincible. Sapp Grant remembers her thoughts after engaging in criminal activities various time with her gang: “The way I felt was, no one cared about me and so I wasn’t going to care about them... It was as if we were all on a giant totem pole, and black people were at the bottom, and I was totally invisible”. Even-though Sapp-Grant joined a gang for recognition, she still felt invisible, worthless and frustrated. We can learn, based on Rodriguez’s and Sapp Grants experience, that the feeling of protection and recognition that attracts hopeless youth to join gangs is completely false. Children with low self-esteem will join gangs to compensate for feeling of inferior, but will end up feeling worse about themselves after becoming gang members, and will quickly realize that the purpose and empowerment their gang provides them with is inexistent.

Because children with low self-esteem join gangs, gang violence can be reduced by empowering and endorsing hope in troubled youth, which can be done through gang interference and prevention programs. The best example for a gang-membership interference program is Homeboy Industries. According to the book, Beyond Suppression: Global Perspective on Youth Violence, Homeboy rehabilitates youth and adult gang members who want to leave the gang lifestyle, and begin a fresh start as positive members of society. Homeboy is a private interference program, which was started in the late 80’s by Father Greg Boyle, who served as a pastor at a church in a neighborhood with high gang-involvement rates in Los Angeles. Homeboy industries was established after Father Greg Boyle and the community he served realized that providing youth with sustainable jobs will keep them away from gang activity, and that providing youth with responsibilities and occupation will cause them to have less interest and time for violent escapades . Later on, Homeboy industries gained recognition and funding by the city of Los Angeles and individuals in the private sector, which enabled Homeboy to expand its activities and become what it is today. As mentioned in Beyond Suppression: Global Perspective on Youth Violence, “Homeboy Industries (HBI) is one of the best-known anti-gang programs in America, offering a statement of purpose that also serves as a mantra: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Beyond this, its formal mission is to assist at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training, and education” (130). As a results of positively changing the lives of 1,500 ex-gang members every year, Homeboy has tremendous effect on gang involvement in Los Angeles. Homeboy provides ex-gang-members with a variety of occupation placement, such as a bakery, café, merchandise manufacture and more. Most importantly Homeboy also offers participants a wide selection of rehabilitation services, such as anger management programs, parenting guidance, mental health services, gang affiliation tattoo removal and much more. As mentioned in Beyond Suppression: Global Perspective on Youth Violence, Homebody is able to seed hope and boost the self-esteem of those who choose to take part in the program; “in the intrapersonal domain, youth and young adults at homeboy experience an increase in self-esteem, self-efficacy, and emotion regulation- through a variety of processes”(134). One of Homeboys most important ideals, and the reason it is so successful, is that it provides troubled youth with a place that they finally feel accepted unconditionally, as well as empowered by the development of their confidence in their abilities and personalities. The effect Homeboy has on its participant’s self-esteem is the key aspect of the program, because by boosting its participant’s self-esteem, Homeboy is able to keep its participants from going back to the gang lifestyle.

While having gang interference programs like Homeboy is with no doubt highly important, it is even more important to have early age delinquency and gang-involvement prevention programs, in order to assure that youth don’t join gangs in the first place. According to the article “What Should Be Done in the Family to Prevent Gang Membership”, early age gang involvement prevention programs are extremely important, because once antisocial behaviors are excluded from children’s personalities, the chances of them becoming delinquent and fueling gangs with their memberships are almost non-existent. There are many important programs that empower parents and guide them of how to raise their children in a socially-positive way, as well as school based gang prevention programs (that start as early as Kindergarten), but the programs that seem most efficient are programs that collaborate and deal with all aspects of children’s’ everyday life: family, school, and community. According to Lewis Yablonsky’s book, Gangster, it is extremely important to empower and create a positive environment for children to grow up in to stop gang violence, as he mentions; “A society that fails to find remedies for its own institutionalized social inequities, including racism, discrimination, poor educational facilities, and dysfunctional family life, including teenage pregnancies, is likely to continue to suffer with the existence of gang violence, drug addiction, crime, and delinquency”. Yablonsky is concerned that if society won’t make an effort to accommodate and empower disadvantaged communities, and assist those communities to heal from negative and suppressing influences, it will be extremely difficult to end gang violence. An organization that attempts to empower struggling communities, families, and schools, is BUILD. According to Jorja Leap’s article, “What Should Be Done in the Community to Prevent Gang Violence?”, BUILD helps create safe and positive environments for children to grow up in, starting with parental and family empowerment, and school based anti-violent curriculums, to after school activities and building of community leadership and responsibility. according to “What Should Be Done in the Community to Prevent Gang Violence?”, BUILD has high success rates in reducing rates of youth delinquency and gang involvement within the communities it works with, because it is consistent and collaborates with all aspects of at-risk children’s lives. It seems that the most successful ways to empower at-risk youth with low self-esteem is by working and being consistent on every aspect of their life, and making sure that they feel safe and accepted wherever they are, which might be the equation that both Homeboy and BUILD were able to solve. It is so important to empower and support struggling communities and families, and create a safe, accepting, and positive environment for children to grow up in, because children with low self-esteems have a greater chance of developing delinquent behaviors, and getting involved in gang violence.

Gang violence isn’t a given, and we know today the reasons gangs exist, what keeps them going, and especially what causes youth to join gangs; therefore, we can also learn how to stop gang violence. Youth may join gangs for protection or recognition, but the craving for those feelings are nested in deep feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. Low self-esteem among children isn’t a given either, it is caused by the environment they grow up in. children that don’t have stable grounds to lean on ,and who are neglected by their parents, as well as children who are abused and beaten by the adults who are supposed to protect them, will feel unimportant and worthless. Children will feel insecure and hopeless when their schools mistreat them and alienate them, and when their community is flooded with violence and crime. Gangs will provide children with low self-esteem with feelings of belonging, that their environment is unable, or un-wanting to provide them with, and for the first time they will feel that they have a power over themselves and others. In order to stop gang violence, gangs should stop being fueled by confused and troubled youth; therefore, as a society and community we need to empower children that are at risk of joining gangs. The municipalities need to implement intensive programs that provide tools and empower weak parents, and assist them with any service they need to assure that their children will be raised in an adequate way. The government and cities should provide struggling communities with tools to create a safe environment to raise children in, including competent schools, family services and after school activates, in order to eject negative and criminal influences out of the community. Most importantly, in order to stop gang violence, all aspects of family, school and community need to be dealt with simultaneously, there has to be collaboration and consistency, there are no shortcuts. In order for children to grow up to be positive members of society, they need a strong supportive environment to grow up in, and interact with, we cannot expect the leaves of the tree to be green, when the roots of it are completely rotten.

Rodriguez, Luis R. Always Running. New York: Touchstone. 2015. Print.

Yablonsky. Lewis. Gangster: New York and London: New York University Press. 1997.

Morrison, Colin R., and Neil A. Ramsay. Youth Violence And Juvenile Justice: Causes, Intervention And Treatment Programs. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers, 2010. EBook.

Cohen, Robert, Lyndee M. Knox, and Joan Serra Hoffman. Beyond Suppression : Global Perspectives On Youth Violence. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011. eBook.

Yablonsky. Lewis. “Poor Parenting Causes Some Children to Join Gangs.” Gangster. New York and London: New York University Press. 1997.

Sap-Grant. Isis. And Robotham. Rosmarie.”A Need for Power and Respect Encourages Gang Behavior”. Excerpted from “Gang Girl: The Transformation of Isis Sapp-Grant”. Essence, 1998.


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