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Trauma in the Lives of Gang-Involved Youth

NCJ Number
Date Published
4 pages
After documenting from research that gang-involved youth have greater exposure to trauma in their lives than their non-gang peers, the nature of trauma is examined along with its link to the gang appeal, and ways that adults can mitigate the gang appeal for traumatized youth are suggested.
"Trauma" is defined as "an experience that threatens life or physical well-being in such a way that it overwhelms an individual's ability to cope." Witnessing a threat to another person can also be traumatic. Typically, traumatic events evoke feelings of extreme fear, horror, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that persist in the mind and emotions long after the traumatic event. Such a state is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Gang-involved youth experience symptoms of PTSD at over twice the rate of other youth. For such youth, gangs may appear to offer safety, a sense of acceptance because of problem behaviors that conform to gang values, and relief from the stress of being judged by normative society because of school failure and antisocial behaviors and attitudes. Ways that caring adults can guide traumatized youth away from gangs include providing guidance and appreciation for positive behaviors and achievements while helping them to understand and address the trauma-related behaviors, and guiding them into participation in peer groups that support their positive interests, cultivate their positive attributes, and help others.