When thinking about how to prevent children and teens from using drugs or alcohol (or avoiding other risky behaviors), there are two things that must be considered: risk factors and protective factors. Risk factors are aspects of a child’s life that make drug/alcohol use more likely. The more risks a child is exposed to, the more likely the child will abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Protective factors are parts of a child’s life that are associated with reduced risk for drug use. Growing up with risk factors does not mean a child will abuse drugs and alcohol, and a risk factor for one person may not be a risk factor for someone else. The goal is for a child to have as many or more protective factors than risk factors. The more protective factors in a child’s life, the more likely he or she will be prepared to make healthy and safe choices down the road.
Here are some common risk and protective factors:
Risk Factor: The home environment is chaotic, especially in families in which parents abuse drugs or alcohol or suffer from a mental illness. The child may not have a trusting relationship with his/her parents.
Protective Factor: The child trusts that his/her parents will provide what they need to thrive, including love, acceptance, positive guidance and protection.
Risk Factor: The child’s parents lack effective parenting skills and cannot manage the child’s behavior. Child abuse and/or neglect may be involved.
Protective Factor: The child’s parents set and enforce clear limits and encourage appropriate behaviors. All discipline is age-appropriate. They seek help with learning parenting skills as necessary.
Risk Factor: The child fails in school performance.
Protective Factor: The child does well academically. He/she is involved in school, recreational, religious, service or other organized activities.
Risk Factor: The child shows poor classroom behavior and social skills.
Protective Factor: The child’s parents communicate regularly with teachers and other school personnel to stay aware of the child’s successes and school concerns.
Risk Factor: The child has friends who are involved in unsafe and unlawful activities.
Protective Factor: The child’s parents know who his/her friends are and are aware of how they behave.
Risk Factor: The child perceives that parents, community and peers approve of drug and alcohol use.
Protective Factor: The child’s parents set clear “no use” expectations about drug and alcohol.
Youth are at high risk for drug abuse during times of major transition, such as starting elementary school, advancing from elementary to middle school, entering high school and leaving home for college or work. At each point of transition, children are faced with new academic, social, emotional and physical challenges. The more protective factors youth have, the more likely they will be prepared to cope with these changes without turning to drugs or alcohol.
What parents can do: Talk to your teens about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Keep communicating and spend meaningful time together. Ask questions and always know where and with whom your teen is going. Set clear and realistic expectations and limits for your teen.