Protective factors and risk factors

The same research that is helping us to better understand resilience has also identified factors that can affect young people’s health and well-being in both positive and negative ways. These factors also affect the developmental pathways that young people follow into adulthood. They are known as protective factors and risk factors.

Protective factors make it more likely that a young person will be resilient and healthy, have a positive sense of well-being, and follow positive pathways through adolescence and into adulthood. Examples include extracurricular activities, living skills such as communication and group work skills, and supportive relationships with parents or caregivers, teachers, and other influential adults.

Risk factors decrease the likelihood that a young person will be resilient and healthy, have a positive sense of well-being, and follow positive pathways through adolescence and into adulthood. Examples include family conflict, violence, and not feeling accepted and belonging at school.

Protective and risk factors can be present in the young person themselves, or in the environments where they lead their daily lives, such as families and schools. The factors are also present in the broader social and physical conditions that shape these environments.

The effects of risk and protective factors are cumulative—they build on one another. The likelihood of a young person being resilient and healthy goes up as the number of protective factors goes up. It goes down as the number of risk factors goes up. This does not mean, however, that resilient youth have no risk factors in their lives. Rather, it means that the protective factors in their lives act as buffers against the negative effects of risk factors.

There are no exact formulas for developing resilience and promoting young people’s health and positive development. Some youth who have many risk factors will be resilient and healthy, while others with plenty of protective factors and few risk factors in their lives will not. Even youth who are raised in the same family or circumstances show different levels of resilience. This is why we can only talk about factors that increase or decrease the “likelihood” of a young person being resilient and healthy.

Check out Foster resilience to learn more about protective factors