How The Human Need For Belonging Relates To Gang Membership

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), gangs are groups of children, adolescents, or young adults that share a common identity and are involved in wrongful or delinquent activities. The psychology of youth gang membership has been well-studied, with various risk factors identified that make young people more likely to join a gang. One of the core motivations may be related to a lack of a sense of belonging.

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How Gang Membership Can Be Harmful

The National Gang Intelligence Center reports that 48% of violent crime in most jurisdictions is attributed to gangs, with this figure reaching 90% in some areas. Gang activities, such as gang retaliation, gang graffiti, and other criminal activities, can be risky for community members and family members alike. It could even affect gang members themselves and put them in danger. 

A 2014 study shows that youth involved in gangs are at risk of experiencing physical violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and unemployment. It is also one of the strongest predictors of antisocial behavior, which has been shown to have links to negative outcomes later in life, such as cardiovascular and psychological illness, heavy regular drinking, and low job status. With such serious risks involved, why do youth join gangs?

Key Motivators For Gang Membership

The AACAP also says that there are a number of factors that may put a young person at higher risk of getting involved in a gang. The motivations for a young adult’s or child’s gang involvement might include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling hopeless about the future due to a lack of educational and/or financial opportunities
  • Significant unstructured free time outside of school hours
  • Minimal adult supervision
  • School factors, such as low grades
  • A family history of gang involvement or affiliation
  • A childhood or adolescence in a neighborhood with heavy gang activity or gang culture
  • No positive role models and exposure to media that glorifies gang violence
  • Underlying mental health disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression
  • Alcohol and/or drug use among peers

Gang behaviors often stem from the desire for belonging and social support that gangs provide. This sense of camaraderie and purpose can be particularly attractive to young people experiencing low attachment to their families, schools, or communities. Elementary school-aged children, for example, may start showing signs of gang interest by adopting certain hand signs or using gang-related language. Early identification and intervention at this stage can be vital in preventing further involvement in gang activity.

Systemic factors that lead to socioeconomic disparities can also influence gang membership in young people. Other things that can possibly contribute to why someone might be drawn to gang involvement include:

  • Lower-quality education due to poor funding
  • Parents who are incarcerated or have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and therefore aren’t as available for supervision or bonding
  • Sale or use of drugs, perhaps due to lack of employment opportunities
  • A negative view of or lack of access to mental health resources

Unfortunately, improving these elements may be easier said than done for many communities; because several of these risk factors can be tied to institutional oppression and inequity, change would likely be linked to shifts in public policy.

Another factor that frequently underpins many of those on this list is a lack of adequate social support and an unmet need for belonging. Since this is typically such a core component of why gangs exist at all, let’s take a closer look at it.

The Fundamental Human Need For Belonging

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of human motivation in 1943 that revolves around understanding basic human needs, and it’s still widely referred to today. Known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it puts physical needs like food and water at the bottom, with self-actualization at the top. In the middle is the need for belonging—to feel accepted, loved, and a part of something. Some aspects of the human experience that can contribute toward satisfying this need are typically friendships, romantic attachments, family, social or hobby groups, church groups, etc.

Maslow linked the need to belong with the need to feel loved, which he defines as a yearning for a sense of friendship and belonging both in groups and one on one. He adds that individuals will "strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.” Joining a gang, by definition, means being part of a cohesive group with a shared identity, which can fill that need for love and belonging—especially in young people.

Research has consistently demonstrated that gang-involved youth tend to lack close ties with their families, friends, and schools, so it’s easy to see how the allure of joining the close-knit environment of a gang can attract young people in this type of situation. In fact, one study found that young people who perceived fair treatment from teachers and other adults at school and those who felt a sense of belonging at school were more likely to avoid gang membership. The same was true for those who lived in neighborhoods with the presence of adult support. Another study summed up its findings this way: Although there are many and the situations are diverse and varied, “the most important community risk factor [for gang membership] is growing up in neighborhoods in which the level of social integration (attachment) is low.”

Preventing Gang Membership

It can be important to remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places the need for a sense of love and belonging just above the one for physical safety. While safety is a need we can all easily recognize and prioritize, belonging is one that often isn’t discussed or emphasized enough. Making sure all children and young people have safe, healthy ways to fulfill this need can be an important part of helping them avoid gang membership and other unhealthy or dangerous situations in their adolescence.

One academic paper cites the following as the most commonly mentioned reasons why people are able to avoid gang involvement: education, other activities, and social and community support. Programs to promote all of these would likely need to be emphasized and supported at both local and national levels to effect meaningful change.

Mentoring programs that connect young people with positive role models can also be effective in deterring them from joining gangs. Role models can help counteract the negative influences of media that glorify gang violence and challenge the idea that money, power, and excitement can only be achieved through criminal activity.

Police and community partnerships are also important in gang prevention. Law enforcement agencies can work closely with schools, community organizations, and parents to identify at-risk youth, promote awareness of the dangers of gang involvement, and develop effective intervention strategies.

Predicting gang membership can help communities design effective gang-prevention strategies. Certain factors can put young people at an increased risk of joining a gang, making them more vulnerable to engaging in criminal activity. Recognizing these factors and implementing appropriate prevention measures can help reduce the allure of youth gangs and other gangs in communities.

The Role Of Adequate Mental Health Care For Affected Populations

Gang involvement can negatively impact participants and their families for reasons covered above. It can expose both to trauma and cause negative mental health effects that can be lasting, especially in the absence of mental health care. Providing adequate mental health care for high-risk populations can help prevent youth gang membership and support those affected by it. 

Therapy is one recommended treatment for people who are healing from these often-harmful experiences. There are also therapeutic programs for at-risk youth to help decrease the likelihood that they may turn to gang involvement to fulfill their need for belonging.

The difficulty of therapy for high-risk populations can be a significant barrier. Programs that are easily reachable in schools or those that offer financial assistance may be helpful in making treatment more widely available. Online counseling platforms are one avenue for easier access to these services; without having to pay for overhead costs, many online professionals can offer much more affordable rates. Plus, online therapy can be available from anywhere with an internet connection.

Online therapy may also help promote feelings of belonging and offer a source of outside support without compromising on quality, as research suggests that virtual treatment may be easier and more cost-effective than in-person treatments while still providing similar benefits.


While a lack of a sense of belonging may be a key component of why gang membership appeals to some young people, this problem is a complex one. A multi-pronged approach is likely necessary for meaningful change, one part of which may be focused on strategies in appropriate mental health care.

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