At-Risk, In-Risk or Both?

Children exposed to domestic violence, experiencing homelessness, runaways, pregnant and parenting teens, victims of child abuse and neglect, and youth in and aging out of the foster care system grow up under conditions which expose them to traumatic situations. They all are at-risk for negative outcomes.
Children, youth and families are considered in-risk because they already experience one or more negative outcomes. Prevention programs will usually address these outcomes, and focus on the in-risk populations to harness protective factors to promote improved well being.

Protective factors, identified at three levels of influence are:

  1.  individual,
  2. relationship and
  3. community, and

must be nurtured, targeted and developed for improved well-being. It is important to work at multiple levels to impact individual skills and knowledge, focus on nurturing relationships and increase supports and opportunities available in the broader community.

The top 10 protective factors with the strongest evidence for children and youth are as follows:


  • self-regulation skills-refer to a youth’s ability to manage or control emotions or behaviors[anger management, emotional literacy…]
  • relational skills– refer to ability to form positive bonds and connections[social competence, being caring, pro-social relationships, interpersonal skills, conflict resolution,…]
  • problem-solving skills-refer to adaptive functioning skills and ability to solve problems
  • involvement in positive activities

All of these are related to positive outcomes, such as resiliency, having supportive friends, positive academic performance, improved cognitive functioning, and better social skills. They are also related to reduced PTSD[post-traumatic stress disorder], stress, depression, anxiety, depression and delinquency.

Numerous interventions target these skills with promising results. They include: Multi-Systemic Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Intensive Family Preservation Services and others. Additionally, involvement in positive activities, particularly school connectedness, engagement and commitment is a strong protective factor. Lower levels of antisocial and problem behaviors, repeat pregnancies, resiliency and higher SES[socioeconomic status] are associated with involvement in positive activities.


  • parenting competencies
  • positive peers
  • caring adults


  • positive community environment
  • positive school environment
  • economic opportunities

Parents, guardians, peers and other caring adults can contribute to a child’s well-being. Parent Competencies include parenting skills[discipline, boundary setting, proper care] and positive parent-child interactions[sensitive, caring, supportive parenting and close relationships between parent and child]. These factors are associated with many positive and healthy outcomes-increased self-esteem, lower anti-social behavior, increased social skills, better psychological adjustment. For children in out of home placements, reunification outcomes increase with improvements of parenting skills.

The well-being of parents and other caregivers is an important protective factor, especially for younger children. Well-being of parents refers to positive psychological functioning of the caregiver themselves[lower rates of depression, and other mental/behavioral health issues of mothers], well being and social supports. This protective factor is related to resilience, better peer relationships and fewer conduct problems. The presence of a caring adult is extremely important for teens and young adults and related to less stress, lower likelihood of arrest, reduced homelessness, higher employment, less suicidal ideation and better outcomes for children of teen mothers.

The community level factors include the school environment with supportive, culturally sensitive and responsive teachers and staff and specialized program services target improving outcomes. Less PTSD symptoms, depression, dating violence, and resilience can result from positive school environments. Positive community environments are defined by neighborhood quality, community safety, social cohesion, and social network support. Economic opportunities are defined as higher income/SES, employment and financial support for higher education.

We tend to place blame for dysfunction, poverty, drop-outs, and even criminal behaviors/activities are burdens of parents and caregivers in the primary home environment. Though family dynamics are important influencers and should be given consideration in developing service/family plans, no man[woman] child or family system is an island. When opportunity, exposure or access to knowledge and skills conducive to improved life outcomes, are unavailable, and historically presented with barriers and obstacles, we can’t realistically expect the ‘physicians’ to heal themselves. The populations about whom are implied here, will remain perpetually at-risk, in-risk or both, unless actionable plans are solution-focused, comprehensive, multi-systems collaborative, and reality-based.

Fragmented services deliver supports and intervention/prevention programs that target and address one area of need in isolation of other environmental influences. We don’t exist in total isolation; there are systems that overlap, and influence one another. Every service must be comprehensive and aligned across systems for measurable, sustainable changes to result. Instead of  clear pathways to college, career and economic stability, countless individuals are traveling the pipeline to prison and marginalization. We allow the most vulnerable to spin their wheels, remain trapped in a vicious cycle, down-spiraling, and bumping into brick walls when we sanction the delivery of fragmented services, and quite frankly, ‘half-assed’ support. Logic dictates the need for comprehensive, wrap-around service models to frame support services in education, child welfare, juvenile justice and other related areas where individuals interact with their environment.

To leave all other areas unchanged, is to withhold opportunities, access and knowledge to grow, thrive and realize full success potential. Protective factors are benchmarks from which interventions and strategies are to be comprehensively designed and implemented by practitioners, educators, family and child advocates,  across settings and systems to build capacity among at-risk and in-risk children, youth and families. Resilience and empowerment are built upon strengths! Risk is ever-present-so the focus must be placed on protective factors!


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