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  3. Risk and Protective Factors For Youth

Risk and Protective Factors for Youth

As youth grow and reach their developmental competencies, there are contextual variables that promote or hinder the process. These are frequently referred to as protective and risk factors.

The presence or absence and various combinations of protective and risk factors contribute to the mental health of youth. Identifying protective and risk factors in youth may guide the prevention and intervention strategies to pursue with them. Protective and risk factors may also influence the course mental health disorders might take if present.

A protective factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, or community (including peers and culture) level that is associated with a lower likelihood of problem outcomes or that reduces the negative impact of a risk factor on problem outcomes.”1 Conversely, a risk factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precedes and is associated with a higher likelihood of problem outcomes.”2 The table below provides examples of protective and risk factors by five domains: youth, family, peer, community, and society.

Risk and Protective Factors for Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders in Adolescences

Table of Contents for Colors

Risk Factors


Protective Factors

  • Female gender
  • Early puberty
  • Difficult temperament: inflexibility, low positive mood, withdrawal, poor concentration
  • Low self-esteem, perceived incompetence, negative explanatory and inferential style
  • Anxiety
  • Low-level depressive symptoms and dysthymia
  • Insecure attachment
  • Poor social skills: communication and problem-solving skills
  • Extreme need for approval and social support
  • Low self-esteem
  • Shyness
  • Emotional problems in childhood
  • Conduct disorder
  • Favorable attitudes toward drugs
  • Rebelliousness
  • Early substance use
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Head injury
  • Marijuana use
  • Childhood exposure to lead or mercury (neurotoxins)


  • Positive physical development
  • Academic achievement/intellectual development
  • High self-esteem
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Good coping skills and problem-solving skills
  • Engagement and connections in two or more of the following contexts: school, with peers, in athletics, employment, religion, culture
  • Parental depression
  • Parent-child conflict
  • Poor parenting
  • Negative family environment (may include substance abuse in parents)
  • Child abuse/maltreatment
  • Single-parent family (for girls only)
  • Divorce
  • Marital conflict
  • Family conflict
  • Parent with anxiety
  • Parental/marital conflict
  • Family conflict (interactions between parents and children and among children)
  • Parental drug/alcohol use
  • Parental unemployment
  • Substance use among parents
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Poor attachment with parents
  • Family dysfunction
  • Family member with schizophrenia
  • Poor parental supervision
  • Parental depression
  • Sexual abuse


  • Family provides structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability
  • Supportive relationships with family members
  • Clear expectations for behavior and values
  • Peer rejection
  • Stressful events
  • Poor academic achievement
  • Poverty
  • Community-level stressful or traumatic events
  • School-level stressful or traumatic events
  • Community violence
  • School violence
  • Poverty
  • Traumatic event
  • School failure
  • Low commitment to school
  • Not college bound
  • Aggression toward peers
  • Associating with drug-using peers
  • Societal/community norms favor alcohol and drug use
  • Urban setting
  • Poverty
  • Associating with deviant peers
  • Loss of close relationship or friends

School, Neighborhood, and Community

  • Presence of mentors and support for development of skills and interests
  • Opportunities for engagement within school and community
  • Positive norms
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Physical and psychological safety

Adapted from O’Connell, M. E., Boat, T., & Warner, K. E.. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2009). Risk and protective factors for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders across the life cycle. Retrieved from http://dhss.alaska.gov/dbh/Documents/Prevention/programs/spfsig/pdfs/IOM_Matrix_8%205x11_FINAL.pdf


Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General
This Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health is the product of a collaboration between two federal agencies, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health. The report provides an overview of mental health as well as a section targeted at children’s mental health. One of the key sections focuses on the risk and protective factors related to mental health in children.


1 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009 p. xxvii
2 O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009 p. xxviii

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