Just as eating a high-fat diet is a risk factor for heart disease and getting regular exercise is a protective factor against acquiring heart disease or other health problems, there are also factors that can help protect youth from, or put them at risk for, drug use and other problem behaviors.

Research has identified a number of risk factors that increase the likelihood that a youth will engage in problem behaviors such as drug use or violence. Research has also identified protective factors that minimize the negative consequences of exposure to risk factors by either reducing the impact of the risk itself or changing the way a person responds to risk.

By reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors, communities can promote positive youth development and prevent problem behaviors like substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and school dropout. 

Protective factors are conditions that buffer children and youth from exposure to risk by either reducing the impact of the risks or changing the way that young people respond to risks. Protective factors identified through research include strong bonding to family, school, community and peers. These groups support the development of healthy behaviors for children by setting and communicating healthy beliefs and clear standards for children’s behavior. Young people are more likely to follow the standards for behavior set by these groups if the bonds are strong.

Strong bonds are encouraged by providing young people with opportunities to make meaningful contributions, by teaching them the skills they need to be successful in these new opportunities, and by recognizing their contributions.

Risk factors are conditions that increase the likelihood of a young person becoming involved in drug use, delinquency, school drop-out, and/or violence. For example, children living in families with poor parental monitoring are more likely to become involved in these problems.

Research during the past thirty years supports the view that delinquency; alcohol, tobacco; and other drug use, school achievement; and other important outcomes in adolescence are associated with specific characteristics in the student’s community, school, and family environments, as well as characteristics of the individual. In fact, these characteristics have been shown to be more important in understanding these behaviors than ethnicity, income, or family structure.

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