When Supporting Children & Families Starts by Identifying Protective Factors and Protective Capacities

Protective factors are conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities or the larger society that reduce or eliminate risk and promote healthy development and well-being of children and families. These factors help to ensure that children and youth function well at home, school, work and in the community today and into adulthood. Protective factors also help parents, who may be at risk for abusing their children, to find resources, supports or acquire coping strategies that allow them to effectively parent-especially under stress.

Within a child’s family or community context, successful interventions and supports must be framed within a clear understanding of how the risk and protective factors interact to affect both incidence and consequence of child abuse and neglect. Protective factors and caregiver protective capacities are complementary frameworks. Protective factors are characteristics and protective capacities are specific, individual attributes that are directly related to child safety. Both frameworks are similarly strengths-based approaches to assess and serve families. To best ensure a child’s safety, and promote child and family well-being, we must promote and enhance both the caregiver’s capacities[at the individual level] and protective factors [at the individual, family, and community level].

Both the microsystem[family, school, peers, community] and the mesosystem[linkages between home and school, peers and family, etc…(systems of microsystems)]are best aligned or complementary to one another in ways which support health wellness and positive functioning and optimal child development. Interactions within microsystems typically involve personal relationships in which influence goes back and forth. How they interact with the child affects how a child grows. Two siblings in the same home/family[microsystem] may still grow and develop differently. Each child’s personality traits will influence how he or she is treated by others. Though within the same environment, each child may process experiences very differently. Avoid over-generalizations about families. Every individual processes life differently, even those sharing the same experience within the same environment.

Theory and theoretical orientation is to be used a guideline to understand individuals, families and communities[microsystem] within their immediate surroundings and relationships[mesosystem] as they intersect with the larger society[macrosystem]. It frames our perspectives, perceptions, policies, practices and procedures. At the present, general practices and policies have been shaped by a set of constructs reflective of a value system that is not representative of diverse family populations. Consequently, tangible protective factors and capacities may be greatly overlooked. When lenses are broadened and strengths-based perspectives guide policies and programs, the needs of families are met with more success. Programs and policies should support one another, and together, with one common goal, ensure all children and families have every possible opportunity to thrive and succeed.

There are many protective factors approaches in development and use by various agencies in various settings. While some are more grounded in research than others, there is no single right way to talk about protective factors. The most important message is that focusing on protective factors is critical and terribly needed for the prevention of child maltreatment and promotion of child and family well-being.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[CDC], Center for the Study of Social Policy[CSSP], and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families[ACYF] have developed approaches. The differences between them include:

  • Population of Focus. The ACYF conceptual model focuses on specific on specific in-risk populations, whereas the other approaches are based on research on general at-risk populations.
  • Domains of social ecology. Social ecological theory examines how individuals exist within and are shaped by their individual characteristics, their families and other relationships, their communities and society as a whole. All approaches define their protective factors in ways that apply across the social ecology, however the parts that are emphasized vary depending on how the factors were studied for different populations.

Despite their differences, there are similarities and alignments across approaches, and in plain English, we want to study and view individuals and families in a context of their environment, while individualizing intervention and perception of strengths and needs of each individually. The overarching goal is the same- child, youth and family wellness. Other similarities include the following:

  • They are data informed and have been reviewed by experts.
  • They describe positive conditions or attributes of families, individuals and communities that reduce risk factors and help promote well being.
  •  They identify positive social connections, resilience and social-emotional competence as specific protective factors.
  • They can be used to inform policymakers, practitioners and consumers.

Implementing a protective factors approach involves more than changes in individual practice. Program policies,  and systems must align and adaptin order to create incentives, capacity, and impetus for practitioners to take on a protective factors approach.Once again, we must view individuals within their environments, view them individually, identify strengths and needs, and the impact these have on functioning. Utilize a comprehensive approach to individual, child or adult, behavioral assessment, along with their primary environments to better understand the ways each interacts with family, communities, schools, agencies and the larger society. Be family-centered, solutions focused, strengths-based, culturally responsive and trauma sensitive in engaging populations. All interventions and supports that follow are made more effective as we promote and advocate for family, child and community wellness. Build capacity and highlight all protective factors, for when we focus on identifying strengths of individuals and families, it is far easier to effectively help them attain goals.


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