Healing Our Caged Children


They’re labeled as thugs, treated like throwaways, and classified by some as “superpredators”: teenage boys and girls who seek sanctuary in gangs, commit violent crimes, and end up in the criminal justice system. Not only are they physically locked up, but these children are caged in emotional turmoil. Childhood friends, teachers, school counselors, social workers, lawyers, and judges are all baffled as to why these kids would choose a lifestyle where they risk getting shot and killed. Analyzing the family dynamics and psyches of these teens is important, yet what is paramount is how we can alleviate their suffering and guide them onto a path toward equanimity and peace.

All of these children entered the world as pure, innocent beings. By the time they grab our attention, they have resigned to the fact that the world is unsafe and cruel, that it is “dog-eat-dog,” and that kindness, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness are all signs of weakness.

These lost souls, who have placed themselves in a subculture wherein they are constantly under peer pressure to prove their loyalty and worthiness by committing crimes and acting out violently. Greed, hatred, and delusions (in the form of perceived threats, insults, and disrespect) are synonymous with gang life. These same characteristics and beliefs were cited by the Buddha thousands of years ago as the root causes of evil and suffering.

Reaching out and connecting with these young gang members is challenging due to their distrust of people and an oath of secrecy they have taken. However, those of us who serve as teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, mentors, foster parents, probation officers, and healthcare professionals have opportunities to make a positive impact. Following are some of the ways that we can help heal and guide these troubled teens:

Listening and Planting Seeds

Lecturing or browbeating will not work; taking pity, instilling fear, enabling, or speaking negatively about their associates or gangs will not be effective. Their street smarts have trained them to smell a hustle and virtually everyone they have ever trusted have disappointed, abused, or outright abandoned them.

We can reach these teens by genuinely caring, listening, and exercising patience, which acknowledge and validate them as worthwhile human beings. They have encountered very few individuals in their lives who truly cared about them without conditions, mixed messages, or ulterior motives. The attitude and the behavior that landed these children in trouble in most cases resulted from one (or more) of the following: inadequate care, poverty, traumatic experience, physical and emotional abuse, mental illness, learning disability, or exposure to negative influences. Helping them get in touch with their true nature and awakening their loving-kindness that has been buried deep inside will be a long process and involve planting healthy, positive seeds. What we teach and expose them to now may not have an immediate impact, but it can begin to alter how they feel about themselves and others. These include those who harmed them as well as the people they hurt. These seeds have the potential of germinating and opening their closed hearts.

Serving as good role models for them at all times is imperative; that means walking the talk. Introducing these offenders to former gang members who have transformed their lives and leading productive, peaceful lives can provide inspiration. Former gang members who are still serving time and have embraced a spiritual practice can have a positive influence as well.

When it comes to rules and regulations, it’s usually best to establish clear, firm boundaries, differentiating between acceptable and inappropriate behavior—as long as it is communicated and maintained in a consistent, compassionate manner. These teens may complain about rules and structure, but there’s a part of them that appreciates knowing what to expect and when. It’s worth pointing out that they had no problem embracing gang rules—taking immense pride in them.

Coping Skills

Up until now, these children have dealt with anxiety, stress, confusion, intrusive thoughts, conflicts, anger, sadness, and other overwhelming emotions primarily by using drugs and alcohol to numb their pain or by acting out in destructive ways. We can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms by teaching them how to deal with conflicts, identify triggers, to be conscious of rising emotions, to express themselves by communicating their needs, and to develop mental discipline through exercises such as meditation.

Mindfulness training can enable these youths to intercept negative thoughts as well as to control their emotions, especially when they’re incarcerated. It will strengthen their focus and attention, and help them attain equanimity, perhaps for the first time in their lives. The skills they develop from practicing mindfulness can serve as the foundation for healing and awakening their loving-kindness.

Their egos along with stereotypes regarding meditation may cause them to perceive engaging in it as being passive and weak, but the activity can be presented as a powerful tool. Informing these gang members that meditation enabled imprisoned monks to withstand inhumane torture—thus prevailing over their captors—puts the practice in a context that they can appreciate.

Encouraging these young warriors to write about their families, upbringing, struggles, and other personal experiences provide a creative outlet for them to express their feelings and emotions. It serves as a catharsis. For these compositions, the emphasis is on content—not spelling and grammar. In a group setting, it’s important to set up guidelines whereby only positive and constructive feedback is exchanged. This ensures a safe, nonjudgmental environment for each individual to write and share their work. It’s not unusual for a gang member to describe in his essay the details that led to his incarceration and have his peers express, out of concern, how they believe he is being exploited. This is another example of positive seeds being planted.

Cultivating Compassion and Patience

Encouraging hardened teens to cultivate compassion for themselves and others can be difficult, as this virtue is often regarded as a sign of weakness. One program that has proven to be effective with incarcerated juveniles is having them care for abandoned dogs and cats. Most of them can easily identify with vulnerable animals. As they bond with these lovely creatures, it connects these youths with their true nature, drawing out qualities that have been suppressed, such as kindness, gentleness, patience, love, and compassion. Slowly but surely they remove their emotional Kevlar and begin to accept how worthy and special they are.

We would be hard-pressed to find a single one of these troubled teens who’s had a happy childhood. Most skipped their boyhood and girlhood altogether; instead, they were forced to grow up quickly as a survival response. Yet, within each of them is a wounded inner child that has been crying out for help, albeit in negative and destructive ways. If we want them to be accountable for their actions, to feel remorse, to make amends, to heal, and to transform their lives, this requires all of us to work together as a sangha (community).

This post was contributed to OM-Times Magazine: http://omtimes.com/2014/08/healing-caged-children/