Keep Kids Drug Free

Risk Factors and Protective Factors that Influence Young People

There are many factors that influence young people’s attitudes and actions with regard to alcohol, tobacco and drug use or other behaviors. There are negative factors and positive. A negative behavior would be a RISK FACTOR while a positive behavior or action would be a PROTECTIVE FACTOR.

A risk factor is anything associated with the increased likelihood of creating or increasing negative consequences. A protective factor is anything that reduces risks and negative behaviors by helping individuals not to become involved with things that lead to negative consequences and/or promotes positive alternatives.

kids on floor

Over the past few decades there has been tremendous research in the arena of alcohol and drug abuse prevention. We now know, for example, that the more risk factors present, the greater the likelihood of young people engaging in alcohol, tobacco or other drug use/abuse, or violence, or other negative behaviors.

Risk and protective factors exist on several levels:

  • At an individual level, life experiences play a more significant role in substance use than genetic traits. Important factors are the level of support and care from a parent or other adult at an early age, the quality of a child’s school experience, and general personal and social competence, such as feeling in control; and feelings about the future. Adolescents who have spiritual beliefs and who do not believe that their friends use substances are less likely to use substances themselves.
  • At the peer level, the selection of peers/friends with whom young people “hang out” with or are involved with and the activities they do together are crucial. Support from peers/friends as a young person makes good choices is important. For example; associating with a peer/friend who is often “In trouble” vs one who makes good decisions and is involved with positive activities makes a large difference.
  • At the family level, factors include a history of alcohol/tobacco or other drug use/abuse (whether there is a history or not affects the young people in a family…negatively or positively); how well the family is run and communicates; how the family disciplines unacceptable behavior and what kind of family rules exist; what kind of coping skills the family uses and promotes; how “close” the parents  child/children’s relationship is; and the strength and availability of the extended family. Adolescents who have a positive relationship with their parents and whose parents provide structure and boundaries are less likely to use use alcohol, tobacco and/or other drugs. However, adolescents in families where there is conflict are more likely to use use alcohol, tobacco and/or other drugs.
  • At the societal and community level, factors include the overall standard of your community and attitudes toward alcohol/tobacco and/or other drug use. Social competency skills, communication, and resistance skills also play important roles. For example, if within a community it is easy for underage youth to buy alcohol more young people will do so…due both to availability and relaxed community standards or norms. If on the other hand, the community has made it very difficult to under aged youth to buy alcohol fewer will attempt to do so or will condone others in their attempts to do so.
  • At the school level, adolescents who have a positive relationship with teachers, attend school regularly and do well (or strive to do well) are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drugs.


Risk Factors

  • Association with friends/peers who model problem behaviors, e.g.; use drugs
  • Attitudes favorable to alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug use, knowledge about drugs
  • Delinquency such as shoplifting and gang behaviors
  • Early and ongoing problem behaviors;
  • General sense of hopelessness about life
  • Genetic predisposition, behavioral not controlled
  • Low expectations of success
  • Low self esteem
  • Perceptions of peer approval of drug using behaviors
  • Personality; lack of social bonding, alienation, rebelliousness, resistance to authority
  • Physiological factors, sensation seeking, boredom, poor impulse control
  • Poor social adjustment
  • Poor coping skills

Protective Factors:

  • Affiliation with friends who model conventional/positive behavior and adoption of positive standards about alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug use…positive peer support.
  • Good coping skills, including; empathy/caring, problem solving, ability to self-control.
  • Intolerance of attitudes toward poor, negative behavior
  • Moral beliefs and values
  • Optimism and positive orientation toward health
  • Perception of risk of substance use
  • Perception of strong anti drug attitudes and behavior among peers
  • Belief that the community has a strong anti-drug standard and that the rules/laws support that standard
  • Positive relations with adults
  • Spiritual beliefs and practices
  • Social competence skills, e.g.; social interaction skills and values


Risk Factors:

  • Chaotic home environments
  • Family conflict
  • Low bonding, lack of mutual attachment and nurturing, and poor family relationships
  • Parents and/or other family members use substances or have an attitude that favors alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug use.
  • Poor and inconsistent parenting skills, e.g., ineffective parenting and negative communication patterns
  • Unrealistically high expectations

Protective Factors:

  • Educational opportunities and social support for parents
  • Parental monitoring with clear rules of conduct and parental involvement in their children’s lives
  • Secure and stable family
  • Strong bonds/attachments between children and their families
  • Strong family norms and morality
  • Supportive caring parents, family harmony


Risk Factors:

  • Availability of alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drugs
  • Exposure to violence
  • Extreme economic deprivation
  • Lack of legislation and law enforcement
  • Lenient laws and standards about drug and alcohol use
  • Neighborhood disorganization
  • Perceptions of approval of alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug using behaviors in community environments

Protective Factors:

  • Access to support services
  • Community/cultural norms against violence and substance use
  • Community networking
  • Healthy leisure activities…accessibility to leisure activities
  • Strong bonds with pro social institutions such as faith organizations, civic organizations
  • Strong cultural identity and ethnic pride


Risk Factors:

  • Academic failure, poor school achievement
  • Low degree of commitment to school
  • Peer rejection in elementary grades
  • Poor academic adjustment and commitment
  • Unrealistically high expectations

Protective Factors:

  • Organizational changes in schools, e.g., tutoring, improved school and faculty and community relationship, changed discipline procedures
  • Positive orientation toward school, sense of belonging, bonding
  • Positive school climate
  • Pro social peer group
  • School standards and norms that discourage violence and alcohol, tobacco, and/or other drug use
  • Successful school performance and recognition of achievement