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Protective & Risk Factors

What are Protective Factors and Risk Factors?

Protective Factors are characteristics within the individual or conditions in the family, school or community that help someone cope successfully with life challenges. Protective factors are instrumental in healthy development; they build resiliency, skills and connections.


Risk Factors are characteristics within the individual or conditions in the family, school or community that increase the likelihood someone will engage in unhealthy behavior such as: the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, or engaging in early sexual activity.

An Important Goal of Prevention is to change the balance between risk and protective factors so that protective factors outweigh risk factors.


  • strong and positive family bonds;

  • knowledge of children's activities and peers;

  • clear and consistent rules and expectations;

  • performing at or above academic ability;

  • healthy peer relationships;

  • strong bonds with school, religious organizations, and/or extracurricular teams; and

  • open communication with children about family values and beliefs.


  • family history of use and/or misuse of substances or mental illnesses;

  • child with a current mental health or behavioral diagnosis;

  • lack of parent-child attachments and nurturing;

  • extremely shy or aggressive behavior in social settings;

  • performing below proven academic ability;

  • poor social and emotional coping skills;

  • unhealthy peer relationships; and

  • attitude that drug-using behaviors is acceptable.

Adults who experienced strong connections as youth were 48-66% less likely to use substances.

Risk factors can increase a child’s chances for drug misuse, while protective factors can reduce the risk, and both can affect children at different stages of their lives. Some risk factors may be more powerful than others at certain stages in development, such as peer pressure during the teenage years; just as some protective factors, such as a strong parent-child bond, can have a greater impact on reducing risks during the early years.


The key risk periods for drug misuse are during major transitions in children’s lives, such as when they leave the security of the family and enter school. Later, when they advance from elementary school to middle school, and again when they enter high school. During these transitions, adolescents face additional social, emotional, and educational challenges. At the same time, they may be exposed to greater availability of drugs, drug abusers, and social activities involving drugs. These challenges can increase the risk that they will misuse alcohol, tobacco, and other substances.

Thankfully, at each transition, risks occur that can be changed or prevented with family, school, and community interventions that focus on helping children develop appropriate, positive behaviors.​

NOTE: Most individuals at risk for drug abuse do not start using drugs or become addicted. Also, a risk factor for one person may not be for another.


​NIDA. "What are risk factors and protective factors?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25 May. 2020, Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

NIDA. "What are the early signs of risk that may predict later drug abuse?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25 May. 2020, Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.

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