5 November 2020

The protective factors for in risk and at-risk families

Α short guide for practitioners

Protective factors are conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that, when present, promote well-being and reduce the risk for negative outcomes. These factors may “buffer” the effect of risk exposure and help individuals and families negotiate difficult circumstances and fair better in school, work, and life. Positive long-term outcomes related to health, school success, and successful transitions to adulthood typically do not occur as the result of single interventions. Focusing on protective factors offers a way to track progress by increasing resilience in the short term and contributing to the development of skills, personal characteristics, knowledge, relationships, and opportunities that offset risk exposure and contribute to improved well-being. In this sense, protective factors associated with the desired longer term outcomes can be used as interim results for practitioners to monitor progress over time.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) serves five vulnerable populations:

  • Children exposed to domestic violence
  • Homeless and runaway youth
  • Pregnant and parenting teens
  • Victims of child abuse and neglect
  • Youth in and aging out of the foster care system


Protective factors at a glance

Self-regulation skills refer to a youth’s ability to manage or control emotions and behaviors, which can include self-mastery, anger management, character, long-term self-control, and emotional intelligence.

Relational skills refer to a youth’s ability to form positive bonds and connections (e.g., social competence, being caring, forming prosocial relationships) and a youth’s interpersonal skills (e.g., communication skills and conflict resolution skills).

Problem-solving skills refer to a youth’s adaptive functioning skills and ability to solve problems.

These three important skills are related to positive outcomes such as resiliency, having supportive friends, positive academic performance, improved cognitive functioning, and better social skills. They are also related to reductions in posttraumatic stress disorder, stress, anxiety, depression, and delinquency.

How can parents, guardians, other adults, and peers contribute to a child’s well-being?

For youth of all ages, the competencies of the parent or guardian include parenting skills (e.g., establishing clear standards and limits, discipline, and proper care) and positive parent-child interactions (e.g., sensitive, supportive, or caring parenting and close relationships)

These competencies are related to numerous well-being outcomes such as increases in self-esteem, lower risk of antisocial behavior, lower likelihood of teen pregnancy, better psychological adjustment, and reductions in internalizing behaviors. The well-being of parents and other caregivers is an important protective factor, especially for younger youth (under the age of 12).

The presence of a caring adult is particularly important for teens and young adults. These caring adults are often program staff or home visitors but can also be mentors, advocates, teachers, or extended family members. The presence of a caring adult is related to numerous positive outcomes, including greater resilience, lower stress, less likelihood of arrest, higher levels of employment, favorable health, less suicidal ideation etc.

Positive relationships with peers are another source of protection for in-risk populations and include both support from peers and positive peer norms. Having friendships and support from peers is related to reductions in depressive symptoms and higher self-esteem. The presence of positive peer norms is related to reductions in rapid repeat pregnancies; less alcohol, tobacco and other drug use; lower levels of sexual activity; less antisocial and delinquent behavior; and more success in school.

Ensuring that children and youth have positive peers can be achieved by creating groups with positive attitudes and values. A positive school environment, with supportive teachers and staff and specialized school-based programming geared toward improving outcomes, is related to reductions in traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, psychosocial dysfunction, and dating violence, as well as improvements in school performance and resilience.

Two additional protective factors are a positive community environment, as defined by neighborhood quality and advantage, community safety, social cohesion, and social network support, and economic opportunities, as defined by higher socioeconomic status, employment, and financial support for higher education.

Last but not least…

It is vital that practitioners working with in-risk children and families use evidence-based strategies whenever possible. Using a protective factors approach can be a positive way to engage families because it focuses on families’ strengths and what they are doing right.

Helping children and families build resilience and develop skills, characteristics, knowledge, and relationships that offset risk exposure can contribute to both short- and long-term positive outcomes.

It can sometimes be difficult to identify programs and strategies that are designed specifically for in-risk populations. However, by focusing on enhancing protective factors, we can help ensure in-risk children, youth, and families have a better chance to enjoy positive life outcomes.

Source: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/in-risk/