Ms. Taylor-Austin is available for presentations on “Counseling Gang Members” for agencies, clinicians and professionals. She is also available for consultation with therapists and therapeutic agencies.
I have been counseling gang members, and those at-risk of joining a gang, since 1988. I do not believe there is any one “right way” to counsel gang members.
But I am often asked, “What works with gang members?” I wanted to address that question on this web page. Each counselor’s or therapist’s personality, approach and techniques vary; however, here is what has worked for me over the years.
First, it is important to distinguish between a client who demonstrates pathology and one who does not. With clients who have some type of mental illness, it is important to use a team approach, with a psychiatrist, psychologist and any other appropriate personnel. Because clinical needs vary so widely and greatly, treatment of clients who demonstrate pathologies will not be discussed here. Instead I would like to focus on the “average” youth who has fears, insecurities, possibly poor social skills and/or poor academic skills.
It is important when counseling gang members to ascertain if you are working with a multi-generational gang or one that the client wants to join for protection, money, status or a feeling of “family,” etc. When working with multi-generational gangs, it is important to note that the biological family has been entrenched in that gang for years and years. To break with this tradition is to break completely with the biological family.
So, let’s begin the discussion on the “average” youth who is not in a multi-generational gang.
Youth often join gangs for a number of reasons: protection, the lure of fast money, status, the need to belong, etc. Often youth may join gangs believing that doing so will be one way to achieve those goals, then they soon find gang-banging is a stressful life. Our goal, as therapists, is not to tell these youth what to do, but to lead them in examining different aspects of their lives so that they may come to a decision about whether their current way of life is “working for them.” When counseling youth, remember: if their life is in imminent danger or if they have overtly threatened the life of another, you must report that fact to the appropriate authorities. It is crucial to explain confidentiality issues at the beginning of the counseling relationship, for that reason.
I have found Reality Therapy to be the most useful theory when working with gang- or criminally involved youth. The therapist’s role and function is to establish rapport and respect (respect and honesty are highly valued by gang members, and by most people for that matter), establish a structure and limits for the sessions, focus on the client’s strengths and potential, actively discuss the client’s current behavior and actively discourage excuses for irresponsible behavior, introduce and foster the process of evaluating realistically attainable wants, teach clients to formulate and carry out plans to change their behaviors, and help clients find ways to meet their needs while encouraging them not to give up when they become discouraged (Corey, G, Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy,1991).
Using the ‘WDEP System’ is useful. This approach explores the clients Wants and Needs; Direction and Doing; Evaluation; and Planning and Commitment. Reality Theory has demonstrated itself to be a concrete approach and one that youth can understand and relate to easily.
I have also found Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy to be useful in counseling gang members or those at-risk. This theory takes the A-B-C theory of personality and challenges the client’s beliefs. The therapist challenges the irrational thoughts of the client and demonstrates to clients their illogical thinking. I, personally, tend to use a combination of RET and Reality Therapy.
Professional relationship with the client has proven to be the most essential element in counseling gang members. When clients feel comfortable, they can cry, laugh, and share openly with the counselor. It is very important when counseling gang members or at-risk gang members not to place your values on the client. If you feel you cannot remain neutral with a client, it is best to refer that client to another counselor. Clients do not need to be told that gang-banging is “bad.” Rather they need to have their beliefs challenged, and they may need to learn new ways in which their needs can be met in less violent ways. To counsel a gang member effectively, you must have a full understanding of gang culture, norms, and values. Read as much as you can on the subject. Ask your client to explain these things to you. Over the years I have seen more and more at-risk youth “posing” as gang members, when indeed they are not. It is important to be able to tell the difference!
Before closing, there is one more thing I would like to address. I have heard colleagues talk about “de-programming” gang members. Not only do I believe that approach is dangerous, I also believe it is disrespectful to the client. I believe it is more beneficial to work with a client’s self-identity and goals in life (or lack thereof), to explore ways to meet needs in a non-violent manner, and to encourage hope. If you personally feel that you are not the person to work with a gang member in this manner, please find someone else who can. One of the worst things we, as therapists, can do to our clients is impose our values and beliefs upon them.
I highly recommend reading Gangster: Fifty Years of Madness written by my colleague Dr. Lew Yablonsky. Dr. Yablonsky describes counseling programs that have worked successfully with gang members. His book can be ordered at a discount via my bookstore page. You can use the same URL to find other gang-related books.
Another program I’ve found successful is Aggression Replacement Training (ART). ART has proven itself effective with gang members in St. Louis and in Colorado (it is being used elsewhere across the United States and abroad). The thought behind ART is that youthful offenders, including gang members, are dyssemic. Dyssemic people have space boundaries (either physical or verbal) and are deficient in empathy, anger management and basic social skills. ART is based on Dr. Arnold Goldstein’s theory, which was tested in Harlem, NY. You can read about it in his book The Prepare Curriculum. ART stresses personal responsibility and uses structure over time to change the behavior of violent youth. Aggression is a learned behavior and ART uses role-playing activities, mind/gym exercises, and body movement to inculcate appropriate behaviors and social expectations. A school that utilizes ART would have a schedule of three hours of social skill building, academics, a parent component, and more. For information on ART, click here
For information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, click here
The following essay was written by an 8th-grade student I counseled. His name has been withheld to protect his privacy.
“To me gang related is dumb because they have all these colors and streets. If you go in a street wearing blue and you go through wearing red, you can get jumped or shot. People like picking trouble and wanting to fight. To me I’d be friends with them but I won’t be in the gang. It is stupid to me. My friends could get my back if someone don’t like me. I have been asked to be in a lot of gangs but I said no because some of my family been in a gang. Now they’re in jail. Almost all my family were in the Latin Kings. I don’t want to be like them.”