Risk & Protective Factors


What are risk factors?

Risk factors help explain circumstances that may increase the likelihood of problem or unhealthy behaviors.

Some signs of risk can be seen as early as infancy or early childhood, such as aggressive behavior, lack of self-control, or difficult temperament. As the child gets older, interactions with family, at school, and within the community can affect that child’s risk for later drug abuse.


Children’s earliest interactions occur in the family; sometimes family situations heighten a child’s risk for later drug abuse, for example, when there is:

  • a lack of attachment and nurturing by parents or caregivers;
  • ineffective parenting; and
  • a caregiver who abuses drugs.


Interactions outside the family can involve risks for both children and adolescents, such as:

  • poor classroom behavior or social skills;
  • academic failure; and
  • association with drug-abusing peers.


Association with drug-abusing peers is often the most immediate risk for exposing adolescents to drug abuse and delinquent behavior.


Other factors—such as drug availability, trafficking patterns, and beliefs that drug abuse is generally tolerated—are risks that can influence young people to start abusing drugs.


What are protective factors?

Protective factors, or assets, can help increase resiliency to problem behaviors such as drug abuse or gang involvement and are believed to buffer youth from risk.


Some protective factors or assets are:

  • Opportunities to engage in community activities
  • Strong family support, enjoying time with parents or guardians
  • Positive interactions with teachers and having school-related opportunities.
  • Social competencies to make good decisions about substance use or other challenges.
  • Having high personal integrity
  • Performing community service
  • Having teachers recognize good work
  • Having community adults to talk to
  • Participating in extracurricular activities
  • Having parents available for help



See more about The 40 Developmental Assets



Adults can make a difference!

The Fairfax County Youth Survey shows that what Parents think matters!


  • 90% of students who thought their parents disapproved of them drinking alcohol (parents thought it was "Very Wrong") didn’t drink!


Families can provide protection from later drug abuse when there is:

  • a strong bond between children and parents;
  • parental involvement in the child’s life; and
  • clear limits and consistent enforcement of discipline.




Note: Information above was taken from  Fairfax County Neighborhood and Community Services, Risk and Protective Factors fact sheets (2013-2014) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publication, “Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents”

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The Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County (UPC) and this website are partially funded by a Virginia Strategic Prevention Framework - State Incentive Grant (SPF-SIG) and a federal SAMHSA Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking grant (STOP). UPC is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization with more than 60 partners and members from the community