Other Youth Topics

Risk & Protective Factors

What are Risk and Protective Factors?

  • A risk factor is anything that increases the probability that a person will suffer harm.
  • A protective factor is something that decreases the potential harmful effect of a risk factor.1

In the context of youth involved or at risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system, risk factors can be considered to be those conditions or variables associated with a higher likelihood of delinquency and/or juvenile justice system contact; protective factors are those conditions which lessen this likelihood.2

Types of Protective and Risk Factors

Risk and protective factors for child delinquency have been identified3in several domains:

  • Individual
  • Family
  • Peers
  • School, neighborhood, and community

The table below provides examples of risk and protective factors by domain.

Risk Factors Domain Protective Factors
  • Early antisocial behavior and emotional factors such as low behavioral inhibitions
  • Poor cognitive development
  • Hyperactivity


  • High IQ
  • Positive social skills
  • Willingness to please adults
  • Religious and club affiliations
  • Inadequate or inappropriate child rearing practices,
  • Home discord
  • Maltreatment and abuse
  • Large family size
  • Parental antisocial history
  • Poverty
  • Exposure to repeated family violence
  • Divorce
  • Parental psychopathology
  • Teenage parenthood
  • A high level of parent-child conflict
  • A low level of positive parental involvement


  • Participation in shared activities between youth and family (including siblings and parents)
  • Providing the forum to discuss problems and issues with parents
  • Availability of economic and other resources to expose youth to multiple experiences
  • The presence of a positive adult (ally) in the family to mentor and be supportive
  • Spending time with peers who engage in delinquent or risky behavior
  • Gang involvement
  • Less exposure to positive social opportunities because of bullying and rejection


  • Positive and healthy friends to associate with
  • Engagement in healthy and safe activities with peers during leisure time (e.g., clubs, sports, other recreation)


  • Poor academic performance
  • Enrollment in schools that are unsafe and fail to address the academic and social and emotional needs of children and youth
  • Low commitment to school
  • Low educational aspirations
  • Poor motivation
  • Living in an impoverished neighborhood
  • Social disorganization in the community in which the youth lives
  • High crime neighborhoods


  • Enrollment in schools that address not only the academic needs of youth but also their social and emotional needs and learning
  • Schools that provide a safe environment
  • A community and neighborhood that promote and foster healthy activities for youth

It is important to note the following:

  • No single risk factor leads a young person to delinquency.
  • Risk factors “do not operate in isolation and typically are cumulative: the more risk factors that [youth] are exposed to, the greater likelihood that they will experience negative outcomes, including delinquency.”4
  • When the risk factors a youth is exposed to cross multiple domains, the likelihood of delinquency increases at an even greater rate.5
  • Different risk factors may also be more likely to influence youth at different points in their development. For example, peer risk factors typically occur later in a youth’s development than individual and family factors.
  • Because risk and protective factors are dynamic in nature, service providers and agencies should adopt ongoing assessments of these conditions.

While youth may face a number of risk factors it is important to remember that everyone has strengths and is capable of being resilient: “All children and families have individual strengths that can be identified, built on, and employed” to prevent future delinquency and justice system involvement.6In recent years, studies of juvenile delinquency and justice system involvement have increasingly examined the impact of these strengths (protective factors) on youth’s ability to overcome challenges and thrive.7

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001
2 Jessor, 1998
3 A study group comprised of nearly 40 experts convened by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) identified four domains for risk and protective factors.
4 Kendziora and Osher, 2004, p. 182
5 Wasserman et al., 2003
6 Osher, 1996, p. 186
7 Kendziora & Osher, 2004

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