Addiction Prevention – Understanding Risk and Protective Factors

Posted in: Blogs, Positive Mental Health

Have you ever wondered why some young people are more attracted to experimenting with or using substances compared to other young people? Why some children do well in school while other children struggle more? Have you ever wanted to influence or change these outcomes?

There are many different and interrelated explanations for problems and desired outcomes. By understanding the connection of these problems or desired outcomes, we can focus on addressing these areas to better support the children and young people in our community. One way to begin to make changes is by considering risk and protective factors.

To understand how to prevent alcohol and drug abuse, it is important to understand the connection between risk and protective factors, which have been well supported by many years of research. Risk factors can be understood as life events, experiences or conditions that are associated with an increase in problem behaviour such as drug abuse. Whereas a protective factor protects against problem behaviour.

It is most important to focus attention on a child’s strengths and protective factors and understand that the more risk factors a child is up against, the more important the need to build strong protective influences around that child. Parents and caregivers are not the only ones responsible for building protective factors and reducing risk factors. It is up to each individual in the community, including parents/caregivers, teachers, coaches, family, friends, neighbours, etc.

When looking in the area of risk and protective factors for schools, the factors can correlate to whether these qualities and influences will put a young person at risk or protect them from alcohol and/or drug use.



Risk Factors Protective Factors
  • Academic failure
  • Negative, disorderly and unsafe school climate
  • Low teacher expectations
  • Lack of commitment to school
  • Withdrawn/aggressive classroom behaviour
  • Caring and supportive school environment
  • High expectations
  • Clear standards and rules for appropriate behaviour
  • Youth participation, involvement and responsibility in school tasks and decisions

As a professional working with children and youth, try to think about the kinds of things you can do to increase the number and quality of protective factors and decrease some of the risks children and youth may be exposed to.

A lot of research in the area of resiliency has been conducted to try and understand how some young people who have many risk factors in their lives seem to have overcome these challenges and develop into healthy, happy adults. There isn’t necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship when it comes to risk factors, but the research has clearly pointed to the significant role that protective factors play in the lives of all young people.

Taneil Zanidean is an Addiction Prevention & Mental Health Promotion Facilitator with Alberta Health Services – Addiction & Mental Health and can be reached at


Alberta Health Services, & Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (2008). Kids and drugs: A parent’s guide to prevention. Retrieved from

Nagy, J., & Fawcett, S. B. (n.d.). Choosing and adapting community interventions: Understanding risk and protective factors: Their use in selecting potential targets and promising strategies for intervention. Retrieved from

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