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Coronavirus Silver Linings: Enhancing Your Child's Protective Factors Against Undesirable Behaviors

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

In these surreal and stressful times of coronavirus, there are silver linings. Sheltering-in-place affords families more time together. With children at home, parents can better check in and connect with their children and monitor their well-being. Parents have the opportunity to model healthy stress relief and coping skills.

Additionally, parents, schools and communities can enhance their children’s “protective factors" during this time. We are already seeing, in the face of this health crisis, so much creativity, a "can do" spirit and many acts of kindness. These all come together to form protective factors around children, which are associated with better coping skills and reduced potential for drug use. 

Protective and Risk Factors According to extensive research spanning over fifty years, protective factors are characteristics within an individual or conditions within a family, school or community that help young people successfully cope with life challenges. When youth can successfully negotiate their problems and deal with pre-existing risk factors, they are less likely to engage in unhealthy behavior. Protective factors are instrumental in healthy development; they build resiliency, skills and connections.

Examples of protective factors that reduce potential for substance use include:

  • Strong and positive family attachment, bond and connectedness

  • Parental monitoring of children’s activities and peers

  • Clear rules of conduct that are consistently enforced within the family

  • Involvement of parents in their children’s lives

  • Success in school performance; strong bonds with institutions, such as school and religious organizations

  • Adoption of conventional norms about drug use

Conversely, examples of risk factors that have the opposite effect are:

  • Chaotic home environments, particularly in which parents abuse substances or suffer from mental illnesses

  • Ineffective parenting, especially with children who have difficult temperaments or conduct disorders

  • Lack of parent-child attachments and nurturing

  • Inappropriately shy or aggressive behavior in the classroom

  • Failure in school performance

  • Poor social coping skills

  • Affiliations with peers displaying deviant behaviors

  • Perceptions of approval of drug-using behaviors in family, work, school, peer and community environments.

Source: Risk and Protective Factors in Drug Abuse Prevention

The causes of substance use are a complex interplay of multiple factors. Youth with some risk factors have a greater chance of experiencing even more risk factors, and they are less likely to have protective factors. Risk and protective factors also tend to have a cumulative effect. This underscores the importance of early detection and intervention.

Protective and risk factors are divided into four groups:

  • Family

  • School

  • Community

  • Individual/peer

These are all discussed in more detail below.


Family Protective Factors

Connectedness to Family. Family connectedness has several components and refers to the feelings of warmth, love and caring children get from their parents. Children who feel support and connection report a high degree of closeness, feelings of being understood, loved and wanted. A parental presence is related to connection; it refers to a parent being present during key times: before school, after school, dinner, bedtime and doing activities together. Research has found this to be one of the strongest protective factors against all risk behaviors.

Positive Parenting Style. Also called “Authoritative” parenting, this involves high expectations, clear family rules, fair and consistent discipline practices and age-appropriate supervision and monitoring of friends and whereabouts. For more about attachment and this style of parenting, and others (Authoritarian, Permissive and Neglectful) which are not effective, see our BTI website page on Attachment and Authoritativeness.

Higher Parent Education. Children whose parents have graduated from high school and have received higher education and training are less likely to engage in risk behaviors.

High parental school expectations. Children who have parents with higher expectations for school success, high school and college completion, and personal achievement are less likely to engage in risk behaviors.

School Protective Factors

Connectedness to School. Students feel “connected”  to their school based on their feelings about the people at school, both staff and other students. Connectedness is described as being treated fairly by teachers, feeling close to people at school, being safe and feeling like a part of the school.

Caring School Climate. This protective factor refers to whether youth feel their schools provide a caring, supportive, positive and encouraging environment. Characteristics that contribute to a positive school climate include: 1) High expectations for student academics, behavior and responsibility; 2) Use of proactive classroom management strategies;  3) Student voice in school activities and classroom management. 

Student Participation in Extracurricular Activities. Student participation and contribution includes activities such as tutoring, peer programs, school clubs, and service. 

Early Intervention Services. Wellness and health centers, counseling support groups, and the like provide the support that is often critical to helping students stay in school. Student assistance programs provide prevention and intervention services to those students whose lives have been impacted by alcohol and drug abuse, violence, divorce, death, child abuse, stress or depression. 

Community Protective Factors

Positive Connection to Other Adults. This refers to the support and caring youth receive in relationships with adults, other than family members (i.e., neighbors, coaches, teachers, mentors or clergy). As children grow, they become involved in an expanded network of significant relationships. This broad network includes many adults who can provide regular contact, mentoring, support, and guidance. 

Safe, Supportive, Connected Neighborhood. While relationships with caring adults on an individual basis are very important, the collective feeling of safety and support coming from the community or neighborhood as a whole adds a synergistic component of protection against risky behaviors.

This protective factor has three features: connection, positive social norms, and monitoring.

Connection refers to young people’s perception of feeling safe, valued, attached, and belonging to their neighborhood, community, or in some cases, youth programs. Positive social norms are maintained when community members have high expectations for children. Monitoring and accountability refer to the degree to which neighbors watch out for each other and monitor the whereabouts and behaviors of their children, as well as hold them accountable for their behaviors. 

Strong Community Infrastructure. Infrastructure refers to effective and accessible clinical services for physical and reproductive health, mental health, and substance abuse disorders. 

Local and State Policies. Local and state policies that support healthy norms and child youth programs can reduce risk behaviors on several levels. Examples include: restrictions or bans on alcohol sales, higher taxes on tobacco or alcohol, restrictions on liquor licenses, safe storage of firearms and ammunition, etc. 

Individual/Peer Protective Factors 

Engagement in Meaningful Activities. This refers to activities involving volunteering and

helping others in community or peer-based programs, or service-learning projects. This protective factor is associated with the reduction of several risk-taking behaviors (alcohol, tobacco or drug use, delinquency, anti-social behaviors, teen pregnancy, school suspensions or school dropout). 

Cultural Identity and Connection. Culture is the sum total of ways of living, this includes: values, beliefs, traditions, protocols, rituals, language, behavioral norms, ways of knowing and styles of communication. One’s cultural identity is the extent to which someone connects to and practices the values, beliefs and traditions of their identified culture. 

Life Skills and Social Competencies.This refers to the abilities that equip young people to make positive choices, maintain healthy relationships, and succeed in life.

  • Communication Skills: the ability to communicate appropriately with people of different ages, backgrounds and status. This includes listening skills.

  • Cultural Competence: the knowledge of and comfort shown with people of different cultural / racial / ethnic backgrounds.

  • Conflict Resolution Skills: the ability to manage and resolve conflicts in constructive nonviolent ways.

  • Empathy Skills: the ability to be sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others and to act in a caring way towards others.

  • Resistance Skills: the ability to resist negative peer pressures and thereby avoid possible dangerous situations.

  • Life Skills: the skills of problem solving, decision making, stress management and critical thinking.

Positive self concept. This protective factor refers to the perceptions and judgments youth have, and make about themselves. A youth with a positive self concept believes that he or she is ―a person of worth, likes himself/herself, feels loved and wanted, and has positive characteristics.

Positive peer role models. This protective factor relates to youth who have friends with the following qualities: a positive attitude about health, good grades, no involvement in risk behaviors, and close relationships with parents. 

Religious or spiritual beliefs. The personal importance placed on religion, prayer or spiritual beliefs is associated with decreased use of cigarette smoking, drinking, marijuana use and suicide (and correlated with delayed sexual activity.) A religious identity is defined by the degree to which a young person affiliates with a religion and, if so, frequency of prayer and perception as religious.

Among the protective factors, the strongest associations with substance use are in the community domain. Research suggests that family and community factors impact children in younger grades while peer and school factors are stronger among older adolescents.


Risk factors are the opposite of protective factors. They increase the likelihood that a child will engage in risky behavior rather than act to prevent it. Research has found that risk factors are stronger predictors of substance use outcomes compared to the protective factors. In particular, individual and peer risk factors are strongly related to lifetime and recent (past 30-day) substance use.

Family Risk Factors

Death by Suicide of a Friend or Family Member (or Suicide Attempts). Youth who have a suicide among any family member or friend within12 months are at greater risk for attempting suicide. 

Family History of the Problem Behavior. If children are raised in a family with a history

of alcohol/ drug addiction, it increases the likelihood that children will also have alcohol and other drug problems. 

Family Conflict. Persistent, serious conflict between primary caregivers or between caregivers and children appears to increase children’s risk for all of the problem behaviors. Whether the family consists of two biological parents, a single parent, or some other primary caregiver appears to matter less than whether the children experience much conflict in their families. For example, domestic violence in a family increases the likelihood that young people will engage in delinquent behaviors and substance abuse, as well as become pregnant or drop out of school. 

Favorable Parental Attitudes and Involvement in Problem Behaviors. Parental attitudes and behaviors toward drugs, crime, and violence influence the attitudes and behaviors of their children. Parental approval of young people’s moderate drinking, even under parental supervision, increases the risk that the young person will use substances, including cannabis. Similarly, children of parents who excuse them for breaking the law are more likely to develop problems with juvenile delinquency. In families where parents display violent behavior, children are at greater risk of becoming violent. 

Household Access to Harmful Substances. When youth have access to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis or other drugs they are more likely to use them in harmful ways. 

School Risk Factors

Academic Failure Beginning in Elementary School. Academic failure that begins in the late elementary grades (grades 4-6), increases the risk of drug abuse and other problem

behaviors throughout life. Children fail for many reasons, social as well as academic. The experience of failure, not necessarily lack of ability, appears to increase the risk of problem behaviors. 

Lack of Commitment to School. Low commitment to school means the young person has ceased to see the role of student as a valuable one. Those who do not have commitment to school are at higher risk for substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout. Leaving school before age 15 has been found to correlate with increased risk. 

Community Risk Factors

Availability of Alcohol and Other Drugs. The more available drugs are in a community, the higher the risk that young people will abuse drugs. Perceived availability of drugs is also associated with risk. In schools where children think that drugs are more available, a higher rate of drug use occurs. 

Community Norms and Laws Favorable toward Drug Use. Community norms (attitudes) and policies surrounding alcohol/drug use and crime are communicated in many ways. Formally, they are communicated through laws and written policies and enforcement

(examples: alcohol taxes, liquor licenses, drunk driving laws, infractions for selling to minors). Informally, norms, expectations and social practices by parents and the community may communicate a climate of acceptance, approval or tolerance of problem behaviors. 

Transitions and Mobility. Even normal school transitions predict increases in problem behaviors. When children move from elementary school to middle school or from middle school to high school, significant increases in the rate of drug use, school misbehavior, and delinquency result. The more often people in a community move, the greater the risk of problems in families. 

Low Neighborhood Attachment and Community Disorganization. Higher rates of drug problems and juvenile delinquency occur in communities or neighborhoods where people have little attachment to the community, where the rates of vandalism are high, and where there is low surveillance of public places. These conditions are not limited to low-income neighborhoods; they can also be found in wealthier neighborhoods. 

Individual/Peer Risk Factors

Child Abuse (physical, sexual) or Other Family Violence. Research suggests that youth who have been physically abused or neglected are more likely than others to use drugs. Exposure to high levels of marital and family discord or conflict also appears to increase risk, as does antisocial or delinquent behavior by siblings and peers. 

Early Initiation of Problem Behavior. The earlier young people begin using drugs and dropping out of school, the greater the likelihood that they will continue these behaviors later in life. For example, research shows that young people who initiate drug use before the age of 15 are at twice the risk of having drug problems as those who wait until after the age of 19. 

Sources: The Role of Risk and Protective Factors in Substance Use Across Adolescence

Risk and Protective Factors for Adolescent Substance Use (and other Problem Behavior)


Sheltering in place during these coronavirus times gives parents added opportunities to check in and connect with their children, assess their well-being, model healthy coping skills and be present and positive.

At the same time, schools, communities and neighborhoods have the opportunity to rise to the occasion to provide support, a sense of connectedness and safety to youth. There is every indication that school administrators, teachers and staff, as well as our community

leaders, are doing so.

Teens can engage in altruistic behavior such as shopping for groceries for their elderly neighbors or relatives or making care packages for children in need. Altruism is proven to counteract negative emotions.

It's up to everyone to show warmth, love and caring - key protective factors - towards our children and to one another during these stressful times. This can be our finest hour. And this too shall pass. We WILL be okay. And our children will look back on this time and remember how much they were supported and the lessons they learned from you.

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