Risk factors and protective factors
As they grow up, youth are exposed to a number of factors which may either increase their risk for, or protect them from, problems such as abusing drugs or engaging in delinquent behavior.
“Risk factors” are any circumstances that may increase youths’ likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors. Conversely, “protective
factors” are any circumstances that promote healthy youth behaviors and decrease the chance that youth will engage in
Risk factors and protective factors are often organized into five categories:
- Peer group
Many of the risk factors that make it likely that youth will engage in risky behaviors are the opposite of the protective factors
that make it likely that a teen will not engage in such behaviours. For example, one risk factor is family management problems.
If parents fail to set standards for their teen’s behavior, it increases the likelihood that the teen will engage in substance abuse
or delinquent behavior. Conversely, a protective factor is effective parenting. If parents consistently provide both nurturing
and structure, it increases the likelihood that a teen will not get involved with substance abuse or delinquent behavior and
will become involved in positive activities.
Exposure to risk factors in the relative absence of protective factors dramatically increases the likelihood that a young person
will engage in problem behaviors. The most effective approach for improving young people’s lives is to reduce risk factors
while increasing protective factors in all of the areas that touch their lives.
Risk factors function in a cumulative fashion; that is, the greater the number of risk factors, the greater the likelihood that
youth will engage in delinquent or other risky behavior. There is also evidence that problem behaviors associated with risk
factors tend to cluster. For example, delinquency and violence cluster with other problems, such as drug abuse, teen pregnancy,
and school misbehavior.
Risk factors that predict future risky behaviors by youth are
- Antisocial behavior and alienation/delinquent beliefs/general delinquency involvement/drug dealing
- Favorable attitudes toward drug use/early onset of AOD use/alcohol/drug use
- Early onset of aggression/violence
- Intellectual and/or development disabilities
- Victimization and exposure to violence
- Poor refusal skills
- Life stressors
- Early sexual involvement
- Mental disorder/mental health problem
- Family history of problem behavior/parent criminality
- Family management problems/poor parental supervision and/or monitoring
- Poor family attachment/bonding
- Child victimization and maltreatment
- Pattern of high family conflict
- Family violence
- Having a young mother
- Broken home
- Sibling antisocial behavior
- Family transitions
- Parental use of physical punishment/harsh and/or erratic discipline practices
- Low parent education level/illiteracy
- Maternal depression
- Association with delinquent/aggressive peers
- Peer rejection
- Availability/use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs in neighborhood
- Community instability
- Low community attachment
- Economic deprivation/poverty/residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood
Researchers know less about protective factors than they do about risk factors because fewer studies have been done in this
area. However, they believe protective factors operate in three ways. First, they may serve to buffer risk factors, providing a
cushion against negative effects. Second, they may interrupt the processes through which risk factors operate. For example,
a community program that helps families learn conflict resolution may interrupt a chain of risk factors that lead youth from
negative family environments to associate with delinquent peers. Third, protective factors may prevent the initial occurrence
of a risk factor, such as child abuse. For example, infants and young children who are easy-going may be protected from
abuse by eliciting positive, rather than frustrated, responses from their parents and caregivers.
Recent scientific studies have shown that community resources also can influence individual teenagers’ positive traits.
Protective factors that protect youth against risky behaviour are shown below.
- Positive/resilient temperament
- Religiosity/valuing involvement in organized religious activities
- Social competencies and problem-solving skills
- Perception of social support from adults and peers
- Healthy sense of self
- Positive expectations/optimism for the future
- High expectations