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Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents (In Brief)

What are risk factors and protective factors?

Research over the past two decades has tried to determine how drug abuse begins and how it progresses. Many factors can add to a person’s risk for drug abuse. Risk factors can increase a person’s chances for drug abuse, while protective factors can reduce the risk. Please note, however, that 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.

Risk and protective factors can affect children at different stages of their lives. At each stage, risks occur that can be changed through prevention intervention. Early childhood risks, such as aggressive behavior, can be changed or prevented with family, school, and community interventions that focus on helping children develop appropriate, positive behaviors. If not addressed, negative behaviors can lead to more risks, such as academic failure and social difficulties, which put children at further risk for later drug abuse.

Research-based prevention programs focus on intervening early in a child’s development to strengthen protective factors before problem behaviors develop.

The table below describes how risk and protective factors affect people in five domains, or settings, where interventions can take place.

Risk Factors Domain Protective Factors
Early Aggressive Behavior Individual Self-Control
Lack of Parental Supervision Family Parental Monitoring
Substance Abuse Peer Academic Competence
Drug Availability School Anti-drug Use Policies
Poverty Community Strong Neighborhood Attachment

Risk factors can influence drug abuse in several ways. The more risks a child is exposed to, the more likely the child will abuse drugs. 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. An important goal of prevention is to change the balance between risk and protective factors so that protective factors outweigh risk factors.

This page was last updated October 2003