Risk and Protective Factors

About Prevention logoThe goal of child maltreatment prevention is to reduce child and family risk factors, increase protective factors, and enhance resilience. Protective factors help children and families withstand risk and develop resilience. Furthermore, protective factors don't just prevent child maltreatment; they also promote positive parenting and healthy child development. This is significant because of the importance that children don't simply survive but thrive and grow to become healthy, contributing adult citizens and parents.

Efforts to impact child maltreatment must address the interplay between risk factors, protective factors, and resilience. It is important to understand how risk factors contribute to maltreatment and how protective factors and resilience prevent or mitigate the harmful effects of child maltreatment.

Risk Factors are characteristics that contribute to a higher than usual probability of developing a problem of concern. Child abuse and neglect risk factors are the attributes, conditions, and experiences that increase the likelihood of exposure to some form of child maltreatment. Factors contributing to the risk of maltreatment may be individual, relational, community, and societal, relating to the levels of social ecology. While children are not responsible for harm inflicted upon them, certain children exhibit characteristics that have been found to increase their risk of being maltreated. Family risk factors may include family isolation or experiencing domestic violence. High poverty, low resource communities are a source of risk for the children that inhabit them. Societal values that support acceptance of violence or non-interference with families can contribute to risk.

The level of impact that risk factors have on a vulnerable child depends on a variety of circumstances including:

  • The number of different risk factors occurring simultaneously, also known as the "cumulative risk"
  • The dosage or intensity of the negative experience(s) or level of risk
  • The number of protective factors available
  • The resilience of the individual involved

Protective Factors help to prevent abuse and neglect or to buffer children from the impact. Protective factors are conditions, attributes, and experiences that mitigate or eliminate the impact of child maltreatment. They also promote healthy development and overall enhanced well-being for children and families.

Risk and protective factors have an interdependent relationship. However, there is not a single specific protective factor which corresponds to each specific risk factor. In fact, no single risk or protective factor has a predictable impact on every child. A specific risk or protective factor will affect children differently depending on individual personalities, parent and family characteristics, other relationships and adult influences and conditions within communities. Additionally, risk and protective factors most often exist in combination where the composite produces a different impact on different individuals.

Despite exposure to similar risk factors and the existence or lack of similar protective factors, some families and children are better able to thrive and adapt. The distinction in their coping capabilities is often identified as resilience.

Resilience refers to positive adaptation despite the threat of child maltreatment related risk or adversity.[1]

Aspects of resilience include:

  • Capacity for doing well under adversity
  • Ability to cope with challenge
  • Recovery from catastrophe
  • Growth following trauma

The Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board utilizes the Strengthening FamiliesTM Protective Factors Framework to guide its own work and the efforts it supports. The Protective Factors Framework helps to identify and build upon the strengths, assets, and needs of families as a means to simultaneously enhance the well-being of children while reducing the risk of child maltreatment. It is an approach and not a program and is designed to be incorporated into the everyday actions of those who work with families. Consequently, the Protective Factors Framework is applicable across the range of programs, service providers, organizations, and audiences.