logo for print

Self Perception, Drugs, Gangs and Our Vulnerable Youth

By Mike Thompson

The abuse is insidious, rampant and crosses all lines…social and economic. It respects no boundaries and pervades all professions, including the politician, the cop and the prosecutor, the teacher and the judge. It has seeped into the most hallowed institutions in America; the White House and the U.S. Capitol itself. But there is no news here…substance abuse is at an all time high-despite the "War on Drugs".


This is not by any stretch a scientific, clinical or medically accepted breakdown. It is merely a tool for this article, and one that I can easily justify based on my experience. Non-users are not a subject group for our purposes here.

1. Recreational Users. We'll define this group as persons who use drugs occasionally, but not to the extent the drug interferes with their social or professional lives. This category may even refuse to use drugs if they are offered and show no signs of addiction. This category uses drugs at the rate of about one day per month.
2. Users. This group uses when the opportunity arises and rarely turns down the offer of drugs. Usage may occasionally interfere with the job and family life. This category uses at the rate of about one day per week.
3. Abusers. Use frequently and may approach daily consumption. Abusers may resort to property crimes such as burglary or other thefts to support their habits.
4. Addicts. Use daily or several times daily. Addicts cannot normally, hold a job and thus resort to property crimes or robbery to support their habits.
5. Terminal Addicts. Hard core addicts who have fallen completely from society and are on a collision course with death. Generally there is no recovery, nor do they seek help. Most will accidentally overdose, fall prey to criminal predators or die in accidents of some kind. All will engage in some sort of criminal behavior including homicide to maintain their habit.

The bridge between these categories is short, well traveled and fast moving. Passage from recreational user to terminal addict can be swift, depending on the individuals mental constitution and concept of being, his or her self esteem or self perception.

Celebrity Users:

Sports heroes, actresses and actors, etc. fall into a separate category as adult users who may not have had a youthful introduction to drugs, but who seek a new adrenaline rush or new excitement after having 'done it all'. Their perception of self may also fall short of their own expectations even though they've reached what the common person may see as lofty achievements. The Super Bowl football star may still be seeking something even higher, although there may not be anything left to achieve in his career.


Parents accept responsibility for their children at the time of conception, not at birth. It's the mother and fathers' awesome responsibility to see to it that the newly created life is nurtured, kept healthy and safe, and delivered into a caring, loving world. One of the parents' most important responsibilities is to guide their child through the task of developing a positive sense of self.

We communicate with our children from the moment of birth. Some argue, and successfully, that we can communicate with our children before they're born merely with soft external massaging and softly spoken words. We can also communicate with violence and disruptive motion.

As the newborn explores its new world, they take note of faces more than anything else, and somehow they know the difference between a smiling face and an unfriendly one. Psychologists tell us that crucial behaviors and the sense of self can be affected even at these early stages of life.

It is absolutely incumbent upon parents to know what they're capable of doing to this new, tiny, fragile and easily influenced life…and that the results will last a lifetime.

Many people struggle with a low perception of self and feelings of inadequacy without ever understanding why. They may try hard to gain acceptance and to be content with themselves, but there may be some elusive factor blocking them from the fulfillment they seek. They may never feel completely at peace with themselves…or with life.

The Honorable W. Jackson Willoughby presides over the Placer County, California Drug Court. His constituency has described him as 'grandfatherly'. Kind, sparkling eyes…an endearing smile and a white beard give this man the qualities I would seek in one who was to determine my life's fate. Make no mistake though, comply with his order or go back to jail.

"Over 500 souls have come through my court, and there are about 250 in my program now," the Judge offered. "Ninety-five percent of them with drug abuse problems have no self-esteem. They've had few to none when it came to good breaks and they don't know how to make their own. They've had VERY few pats on their backs in their entire lives.

When I first see them, they're sallow, sickly looking, hunched over in the shoulders and just plain sad. I look forward to giving them what may be the first compliment, the first pat on the back they've ever had. I offer them judicial supervision and a system of rewards. As they progress through the program, they stand taller, their skin starts to look better, they clean up and you can see the health return to their being.

If their first drug test comes back dirty, they're sanctioned and counseled. Their next dirty test costs them three days in jail and progresses with each test that's not clean. Each of the three programs, depending on prior record, last from twelve to eighteen months.

When their counselors tell me that they're doing well, I give them honest and sincere, heartfelt compliments, and in some cases the first they've ever heard. Their faces beam with pride, and that's what makes them work harder and succeed. When they test dirty, they're handcuffed and led out of my court…but almost always they say "thank you Judge" on the way out. It just tears me up.

When we first started this program, I ordered the bailiff to remove the children from the courtroom, thinking this was something they shouldn't see. After rethinking the issue, it occurred to me that these children had already seen an endless supply of drugs and despair and needed to see something positive. We then encouraged the parents to bring their kids to court. What they see now is their parents accepting responsibility for their actions and trying to better themselves. What better example could a kid ever have? They see their parents praised. I speak with them one-on-one and I tell them they should be very proud of their mom or dad. And I'll ask them " Don't you think your dad did well? Aren't you proud of him?" It's a double whammy. The whole family is bolstered and the kids have a new image of the judicial system.

We have graduations every few months and we ask them if there's anything they'd like to say. Invariably, they take the podium and tell the crowd that for the first time in their lives, they like themselves, they feel good about themselves and that they have pride in who they are.a

Judge Willoughby is without a doubt the most positive influence the majority of these lives have ever experienced. With their first dose of a positive perception of self, these people stand a fair chance of succeeding for the first time. Too bad they had to wait this long.

People exposed to a dysfunctional environment early in life may experience a subtle form of influence called "covert rejection." Some parents verbally profess love to their children, but their actions send a different message to the child. Life becomes a series of rejection messages causing low self esteem.

Praise holds an extreme amount of value, but to be truly effective it must be genuine and not misdirected. "Your mother and I are truly proud of your efforts to keep up with your homework," rather than "Keep this up and you'll be the president someday."

For three decades the state of California has been developing counterfeit self esteem in its school children. "…For 30 years we have gutted rigorous, traditional educational subjects and practices in favor of making students 'feel good,' regardless of actual accomplishments." said George Roche, President of Hillsdale College in a recent article. He continued: "Deliberately inflated levels of bogus self-esteem, levels not supported by any objective acquisition of skills, may in fact be the cause of a considerable amount of violent behavior. People turn aggressive when they receive feedback that contradicts their favorable views of themselves." These conclusions were tallied from the results of over 200 studies, not just one or two.

It's clear to see, now, why a challenge to self esteem… 'disrespecting' or dis'n' as the gangsters call it, results in violence… and where it came from.


·You can bolster confidence in weaknesses by letting the child know you notice their efforts in the tough areas. "I know you'd rather play than do the chores, but we're really proud of the job you've done this week." Praise goes a long way and gives your child a sense of worth.
·Peer criticism is sometimes cruel and hard to handle. Kids are merciless when it comes to saying what they think. Give your child the tools to develop an 'emotional shrug.' Teach them the difference between justified and unjustified criticism. Your child may respond to justified criticism by agreeing and thanking the person. Unjustified criticism is shrugged off as valueless.
·Being overlooked for an honor, cut from a team, turned down for a date or not invited to a party can be tough. It's important to reaffirm the child's worth despite disappointments, and life is full of disappointments! Share some of your own in an effort to keep the child from thinking 'it only happens to me!' Teach them to be their best selves, to develop positive relationships and emphasizing their strengths. Help them understand that not everyone is going to like him or her, but that does not devalue their worth to other people.

Without the tools it takes to handle criticism and rejection, justified or unjustified, the experience may produce feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, depression, emotional isolation, introspection, perfectionism, irresponsibility, guilt and even self-hatred. The child often learns to have a difficult time expressing feelings, asserting him or herself, or taking control of his life. The child may experience resentment, bitterness, refusal to communicate, distrust and ambivalence toward the parents. They may also form a co-dependant attachment to the parents, spending a lifetime trying to gain acceptance and love that he or she has always sensed as missing.

The rejected child may grow up to pass on to his or her family the negative experiences of their childhood. There may be an attitude characterized by an inability to express love or by unwillingness to spend time with them, a tendency to vent hostility through punishment or abuse-both physical or emotional, or to make open statements of rejection.

·Help your child learn good grooming and the value of a smile and a kind word to others.
·Teach your child how to handle mistakes and failures. Let them know that no one is perfect. Tell them about your own failures and what you did to get past them. Teach your child to set reasonable goals and show them how to work toward accomplishing them. Also teach them not to be too disappointed if they come up short, but show them that giving their best effort is important too. Be careful not to replicate the school system philosophy, however.

A negative perception of self contaminates relationships in every aspect of life. A rejected person cannot accept love for fear of losing it, is programmed to expect rejection or to trigger it and may try too hard to please. They may also refuse to communicate honestly and cling like a leach to a person who does accept them.

Negative experiences in childhood may lead to feelings of worthlessness. Degrading remarks by parents or negative labeling by peers may cause a young person to look for acceptance in harmful ways. This can set up a destructive cycle of wrong choices that will only accelerate the feeling of worthlessness. Relationships then follow a painful pattern of distrust, defensiveness, frustration and resentment. It is at this point that a child may begin to seek something to make him or her feel good…and drugs or alcohol are an easy choice…and readily available.

·The intent of this is not to say that all children from a dysfunctional household will turn out bad. Some will do just fine, and some will do fine with a great deal of effort. Some will slip toward gangs as well as, or instead of, drugs. The parameters described above hold true for gangs as well.


During my career, I experienced an especially rewarding period of time as a member of a street-gang crime suppression unit. Word got out that there was an especially notorious gangster from Los Angeles who had been sent by his family to our small community to avoid apprehension and prosecution. I'll call him Sam.

Sam was working at a local McDonalds and had been terrorizing some of the local youth. I met with Sam at his workplace one day and asked him what his intentions were in Auburn. Sam became somewhat belligerent and resented me insinuating he was a gangster. He puffed up his chest and got a bit louder outside the restaurant and made some references to my mother and my heritage. I didn't back down and told him to be careful, that this was not Los Angeles.

About two weeks later I was giving a two-hour presentation at one of our local schools to about two hundred concerned parents on gang awareness. About halfway into my delivery, a nicely dressed young man, well groomed and neat walked into the back of the auditorium and sat down…listening intently. He approached my microphone some minutes later, uninvited and rather unexpectedly. Sam asked if he could say a word or two. I hesitated, thinking only the worst. He said "it's OK Mr. Thompson, give me a minute." Very reluctantly, I relinquished the microphone.

Sam surprised me, and I'll never forget his words. He said 'You know, everything Mr. Thompson has been telling you is 100 percent right on. And let me tell you about myself." Sam went on to talk about his participation in shootings and holdups in Los Angeles, and his involvement in one of the most notorious gangs in the country.

A member of the audience raised her hand and asked, "How did you recruit for your gang?" The response was candid, cold and frightening. He Said: We would go to the school campuses and watch, after school, for kids who were by themselves and who walked home alone. We knew the stuff to look for. They appeared sad, head hanging down, like they had no friends. After a few days of watching and selecting, we approached them and struck up a conversation. We offered to be their friend and we listened to their problems. The second or third day we'd give them five bucks, maybe ten, and told them to buy whatever would make them happy.

We'd give them money for days or weeks. Then we set the hook. We'd ask them to deliver a package, dope, for two or three times what we'd been giving him or her. The assignment was easy and fairly risk free. After a few days, the new recruit was addicted to having a friend and money. The recruit made more money and had many more new friends after a month or two. Then we'd have them in the palm of our hand, and the parents had little or no control. They were now part of us.

And what age group was this? They were third and fourth grade elementary school students. The common denominator is a lack of a satisfactory perception of self …low self esteem.


It's every parent's responsibility and duty to deliver a fully functional, well-adjusted asset to adult society. We can no longer accept liabilities, dysfunctional, welfare grabbing kids who will spend the remainder of their lives in one treatment or another, or being ushered through the door of Judge Willoughbys courtroom.

It's clear that the fix to the problem is not a quick one. First, most parents probably don't know that something is very wrong, or if they do, they don't realize the magnitude of the problem and tend to minimize it unwittingly. They don't know that they're creating an incomplete, dysfunctional product.

Educating prospective parents is a first step. Erasing or modifying behavioral patterns the parents learned from their own dysfunctional rearing is absolutely critical and essential.

It's clear that not all aspiring parents-to-be can be reached, but we would be remiss if we didn't try. And the legacy would continue.

We owe it to future generations to shortstop this problem as best we can. If we care at all about our kids and their kids, we have to do something. We cannot, at any cost, rely on federal or local law enforcement or the schools to solve our problems or counsel our children. Parenting is an awesome responsibility and successful child rearing does not come easily. But with some understanding of the consequences of parental action or inaction, just maybe we can improve the next generation.

1Interview with Judge Willoguhby, March 1998.

Mike Thompson has been a fulltime sworn peace officer for the past 27 years. He is also a helicopter flight officer and historian and writer of military and aviation history. In his police career he has received many awards and decorations including 48 miscellaneous commendations and a Life Saving Effort Citation. Prior to his law enforcement career, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force from 1965-1969.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.