Risk Factors and Protective Factors
Young people who adopt negative behaviors usually share certain characteristics – traits that are apparent even before any negative behavior actually occurs. Psychologists call these “Risk Factors.” When one or more of these are present, the child is at heightened risk of adopting negative behaviors in the future. The more risk factors present, the higher the odds.
Risk factors have a counterpart in positive traits called “Protective Factors.” Protective factors are traits that are shared by young people who do not tend to adopt negative behaviors. Adolescents with strong protective factors are less susceptible to negative influences and tend to choose positive activities in their place.
Young people can sometimes be taunted or teased by their peers into doing things they don’t want to do or things they know are wrong. (“My friends do drugs. They’re pushing me to start. I want their respect, so I’ll do it.”).
Sometimes no outside pressure is applied at all. Instead, the child observes what peers are doing, and adopts the same behaviors out of a desire to be accepted. (“The kids I think are ‘cool’ do drugs. I’ll start doing drugs so I can be like them.”).
Peers have a strong influence on a child’s behavior choices. If your child’s friends are involved in negative behaviors, the odds are high that your child is, too. This is especially true for young people who have trouble resisting peer influences.
Negative peer influences are among the strongest predictors of negative behaviors. As a parent, you can take steps to counteract peer influences. Take an early, active role in your child’s choice of friends. The child who is surrounded by positive, well–behaved kids from an early age is less likely to be exposed to negative peer influences.
In addition to reducing risk factors, you can nurture and reinforce protective factors (skills, attitudes, and beliefs that help kids make positive lifestyle choices). Protective factors even seem to help high–risk youths overcome the odds and avoid negative behaviors.
A stable, caring and supportive relationship with at least one adult, either a parent or another dependable adult. Psychologists suggest that a strong bond with at least one adult is one of the most important protective factors for a child. Ideally, parent and child will have formed from an early age a relationship based on mutual trust, understanding, respect and love. Such a relationship allows the parent to fill a variety of roles – caregiver, protector, counselor, teacher, mentor, disciplinarian and cheerleader – during the child’s development.
Sense of hopefulness and purpose – the belief in a bright and successful future. Hopefulness and purpose represent more than just a sunny attitude – they’re necessary to establishing and achieving positive goals, a core building block for success and a key element in resisting negative behaviors. After all, to young people with their eyes on a goal, negative behavior isn’t a temptation, it’s an obstacle on the path to achievement.
The skills, attitudes and behaviors that constitute protective factors need to be nurtured over time. Helping in this development is one of the most important contributions a parent can make. By doing so, you’ll help your child avoid problems in adolescence and provide him or her with a strong foundation for achieving success in all areas of his/her life.