The development of low self-esteem in a child may be the result of detrimental experiences at school, encounters
in an abusive home, or as a result of negative
experiences with peers. That's why I felt a separate section on self-esteem
While some gang members present themselves with some bravado, think highly
of themselves and proud of what they have become, some youth who join gangs suffer from a negative self image. Opportunities to feel good about themselves in their family or at school
were few and far between. Yablonsky tells us "The gangsters'
personality problems of low self-esteem and sense of alienation drive them
to act super tough to compensate for their sense of inferiority."
1997, p. 18) Perhaps that's where some of that bravado comes
According to Yablonsky,
...the following sequence of events depicts the
early socialization process in the background of the typical sociopathic
gangster: 1) as a child he is emotionally, sexually, or physically abused
or neglected by his primary socializing agent, his parents. 2) Because he
is treated in negative ways and with limited respect, the child feels
humiliated, demeaned, and unworthy.
3) As a consequence of this pattern of socialization
he develops a low self-concept and feels self and other rage and
hatred. He tends to accept on some deeper emotional level a message
he is repeatedly given, which he interprets as "If these powerful people
in my life, my parents, think that I am stupid, inadequate, and unworthy
of love and respect, I must be an inferior person."
4) Mixed in with this creation of feelings of low
self-esteem is a rage against the parents who abused or neglected him, and
this rage is often displaced to others in a society that also treats them
with a level of disrespect. (Yablonsky,
1997, pp. 120-121)
Children who have acquired a negative self-concept and low self-esteem in
their formative years then go to school and have the potential of eliciting
similar negative responses from teachers and peers. It is, in many cases, a
self-fulfilling prophecy. It were as though the child were saying "Everyone at home relates to me as a bad person. So, I must be a
bad person." When the child starts going to school he acts like a bad
person and school officials and peers begin to deal with him or her as a bad
person. "See," the child says, "I told you I must be a bad
person. They even treat me that way at school!"
Middle- and upper-class youths have several sources for achieving a
sense of self worth and esteem. Among them are excelling at school,
succeeding in extracurricular athletics, going to camp and excelling in a
leisure-time activity or craft, and earning a legitimate part-time
income. Some of these avenues are unavailable to lower-class children and
even less so to children from the underclass.
A west coast gang unit officer said "We
get calls from all over the country. They call us and say 'We have
this Crip or this Blood, do you guys know him?' Sure, we know
him! Then they say 'But we don't have gangs' and I have to tell them
'Oh, yes you do!' And he may be a loser here in L.A., but
he's a real star in the other town. He has the guts to pull out a gun,
hold it to someone's head and say 'I'm gonna kill you, you little
fuck!' That would be taken as a joke here. But
there? It's taken seriously and he's seen as very tough and a real
gangbanger. And he's going to be looked up to by the kids in that town who admire people like that. And they'll probably form a
group - a gang - around him."
Youths who are effectively abandoned by parents and school may seek
one another out or meet as a result of their misbehavior. As Maslow noted,
we all have a basic need for acceptance and belonging. These children have
the same need - perhaps more so due to their other basic needs going unmet. As they
socialize, will a group develop? If they socialize with one another over time
and support one another in violating the law, a gang has been formed.
As in non-gang society, gangs offer many ways in which their members may
earn respect. Succeeding in the commission of a crime earns
respect. Respect may be earned by ripping people off, disrespecting
authority, dominating another person, exploiting others, serving time in
prison, and being a known associate of a gang member with greater status
than one's own. The point here is that a gang provides these opportunities
- opportunities which the gang member perceived of as unavailable outside the
Despite similarities to
boys in their behavioral activities and in reasons for joining gangs, girls
reported greater social isolation from family and friends. Girls also reported
lower levels of self-esteem. (Esbensen
et al., 1999)
A lack of self-esteem alone, however, is insufficient as an explanation for the
formation of gangs. The absence of a rite of passage from childhood to
adulthood may also add to their development.