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Resiliency & Protective Factors

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Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Violence Fact Sheet



Numerous factors can contribute to and influence the range of behaviors that are defined as youth violence. It is important to consider these factors in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the problem. It is also necessary to understand those factors that build resiliency and potentially "protect" youth from engaging in violence.

Current research indicates that the presence of a single risk factor in an individual does not, by itself, cause antisocial or violent behavior.1 Rather, it is now generally believed that multiple factors combine to contribute to and shape behavior over the course of adolescent development. Studies suggest it is the confluence of certain "risk" factors that contribute to violent behavior, and the existence of certain "protective" factors, that create resiliency. The design of effective prevention and intervention strategies should take into consideration the dynamics and inter-relationship of both types of factors.


Risk factors are defined as scientifically established factors or determinants for which there is strong objective evidence of a causal relationship to a problem. Protective factors, on the other hand, are those that potentially decrease the likelihood of engaging in a risk behavior. These factors can influence the level of risk an individual experiences or can moderate the relationship between the risk and the outcome or behavior.2

One way to understand the dynamic between risk and protective factors is to view them within an ecological framework.3,4,5 The ecological model recognizes that each person functions within a complex network of individual, family, community, and environmental contexts that impact their capacity to avoid risk.

The ecological framework is based upon a public health perspective for reducing risks and preventing disease, illness and injury. Instead of focusing just on the individual who is at risk for, or who engages in, a particular behavior such as violence, the public health approach considers the individual's relationship to his or her surroundings. Recently, other disciplines, including mental health and criminal justice, have begun to adopt this multi-leveled approach in their efforts to understand the nature of violence and identify potential points of intervention that reach beyond the individual.

Individual-level factors, for example, are identified as those behaviors or characteristics that affect one person's risk of, or resistance to, potentially engaging in violent behavior. Family factors are typically related to a family's structure, support, culture, and functioning and ultimately affect the behavior of the individual members. Community factors consider physical environment, available economic and recreational opportunities, existing social supports and other issues that impact the successful functioning of the residents. Finally, environmental factors are those that consider larger issues such as social values and the impact of media, policy or legal decisions.

The Ecological Model  




Specific Risk and Protective Factors  

Violence prevention experts have identified a number of risk and protective factors that can be directly attributed to violent behavior.

Below is an overview of some of the specific factors that have been linked to youth violence. The factors are organized into categories that reflect their level of influence, though some may cut across the different levels. While many of the factors included here have been scientifically studied, others require more research. However, all have been identified as having some contributing connection to youth violence and delinquency. Given that individuals operate within the context of their surroundings, the section moves from the broader, environmental factors to the specific factors that relate directly to individual behavior.

Environmental Level Factors  

Environmental factors play an important role in creating conditions that can contribute to a culture of violence among a particular group of people or in a given community. Some of the factors at this level that have been linked to violence include poverty, media exposure to violence, and the general disenfranchisement of young people in our society.

Socioeconomic status has been consistently found to be an important contributing factor to violence in many studies. Depressed economic conditions coupled with individual cases of unemployment and limited economic opportunity contribute to higher levels of violence in a given community. Researchers have confirmed that youth living in poverty are more likely to engage in violent behavior.6 Youth often also experience specific barriers when seeking employment, such as employers who would prefer not to hire them, limited job skills or appropriate vocational training, or physical obstacles, such as poor transportation.

Other research indicates that exposure to violence in the media, particularly prolonged exposure by children, may contribute to aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence.7, 8 The media also may contribute to the perception of violence as a normative behavior, reinforcing and sensationalizing violence as an appropriate and justifiable problem-solving strategy.

Finally, many adults have a disregard and mistrust of young people, and our culture has largely failed to recognize youth as a valuable asset. As a result, many youth may find it difficult to engage in meaningful and substantive relationships with adults both individually and within the larger community. This lack of connection may contribute to youth feelings of alienation and disassociation from mainstream society, thus increasing risk for delinquent or violent behavior.

Protective factors that can help build resiliency and reduce overall risk for violent behavior at the environmental level include national, state, and local policies that support child and youth-oriented programs. Such programs can help adults build a base of understanding and commitment to working with and engaging young people. One of the most powerful protective factors emerging from resiliency studies is the presence of caring, supportive relationships.9 Thus, the commitment of resources to programs that support meaningful opportunities for adult/youth interaction will help more adults understand youth perspectives and behaviors, and can contribute to a culture of caring instead of one that ignores youth, or worse, labels them as deviant or antagonistic.

Community Level Factors  

Some of the community-level factors that contribute to the risk for youth violence include the availability of drugs and firearms, community deterioration or disorganization, and access to quality educational and recreational opportunities.

Researchers have found that the prevalence of drugs and firearms in a community predicts a greater likelihood of violent behavior.10 Legislation, enforcement, and community dynamics combine to influence the local accessibility of drugs and weapons. Within individual communities, the availability of drugs or weapons may vary, influenced by the presence of existing violence, gang activity, or an active firearm trade. These factors are clearly linked to existing socioeconomic conditions. For example, limited economic opportunities in a given community may legitimize a local drug trade, creating an underground secondary economy offering the potential of significant financial gain, status, and power.

Community disorganization is another predictor for violent activity.11 This factor is defined as the presence of high crime rates, gang activity, poor housing, and general deterioration in a given community. These communities also may have a lack of appropriate institutions and services for young people, such as quality schools and recreational facilities, limiting youth access to positive and productive development experiences.

On the other hand, a strong community infrastructure has been identified as a protective factor against youth violence in the resiliency literature. Communities can create opportunities for youth to participate in activities where they have choices, decision-making power, and shared responsibility. Such experiences help them to develop new skills, increase self-confidence, and offer a chance to make a difference.

Family Level Factors  

Research demonstrates that family dynamics and parental or caregiver involvement are significantly correlated with an individual's propensity to engage in violent behavior. A lack of parental interaction and involvement increases the risk for violence, particularly among males.12 Failure to set clear expectations, inadequate youth supervision and monitoring, and severe or inconsistent family discipline practices can also contribute to delinquency and violent behavior.

Child abuse and neglect are additional family-level risk factors. Research evidence suggests that children or youth who have been physically abused or neglected are more likely than others to commit violent crimes later in.13, 14, 15 Exposure to high levels of marital and family discord or conflict also appears to increase risk, as does antisocial or delinquent behavior by siblings and peers.

Family members, especially parents or primary caregivers, can play a significant role in helping protect youth from violence by emphasizing the importance of education and offering support and affection. Frequent, in-depth conversations and communication between parents and children help build resilience as does the existence of a non-kin support network which offers access to a variety of adult viewpoints and experiences. Other family level protective factors include clear boundaries for behavior that enforce structure and rules within the household and reasonable disciplinary actions when rules are violated.

Individual Level Factors  

The majority of research related to risk factors has focused on individual-level characteristics or behaviors that predict or contribute to violence. It is important to be cautious in assessing these factors to avoid inappropriately labeling or stigmatizing individual young people because they possess certain characteristics or fit a specific profile. It is also necessary to view individual factors within a developmental framework, to understand what is appropriate behavior at certain ages, and to avoid misinterpretation of the signs. Finally, it is necessary to remember that violent behavior is a product of multiple factors operating on many levels in the absence of protective factors and that individual youth are largely acting within the context of their environment and experiences.

An analysis of findings from many studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Justicefound consistent evidence suggesting a correlation between violent behavior and hyperactivity, concentration problems, restlessness and risk taking. Further research appears to be necessary to understand the pathways that cause this progression to occur. Other research indicates that there is strong evidence for the co-occurrence of mental health disorders, such as depression, among children or youth with antisocial or delinquent behavioral problems.

Aggressive behavior during childhood (from ages 6 to 13) appears to consistently predict later violence among males, though research results for aggressive females are less consistent. 16 Early onset of violence and delinquency is also associated with later acts of more serious and chronic violence,17, 18 as is involvement in other forms of antisocial behavior, such as substance use, stealing, and destruction of property.19

Poor academic achievement and school failure are other individual-level factors that contribute to risk for violence. Some research indicates that this relationship is stronger for females than for males.20 Young people who are consistently absent from school during early adolescence (ages 12-14) appear to be more likely to engage in violence as adolescents and adults. Leaving school before age 15 has been found to correlate with increased risk as well.21

Individual level traits and characteristics that have been identified as protective factors include a sense of purpose and belief in a positive future, a commitment to education and learning, and the ability to act independently and feel a sense of control over one's environment. The ability to be adaptable and flexible and have empathy and caring for others is also significant as is the ability to solve problems, plan for the future, and be resourceful in seeking out sources of support. Conflict resolution and critical thinking skills are additional factors that help protect youth from violence, delinquency, and antisocial behavior.

The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center is sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Federal partners working on youth violence.     References  
  1. NIMH, 2000
  2. Richard Jessor, Successful Adolescent Development Among Youth in High-Risk Settings, American Psychologist, Volume 48, Number 2, February 1993.
  3. Patrick Tolan and Nancy Guerra, What Works in Reducing Adolescent Violence: An Empirical Look at the Field, University of Illinois at Chicago for the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, July, 1994.
  4. James Garbarino, Adolescent Development: An Ecological Perspective, Columbus, OH, Charles E. Merrill, 1985.
  5. U. Brofenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design, Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1979.
  6. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  7. Brandon S. Centerwall, MD, PhD, Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where to Go from Here, Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 267, Number 22, 1992.
  8. Physicians Guide to Media Violence, American Medical Association, 1996.
  9. Bonnie Benard, Resilience Research: A Foundation for Youth Development, New Designs for Youth Development, Summer 1996.
  10. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  11. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  12. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  13. C.S. Widom, The Cycle of Violence, Science, Volume 244, 1989.
  14. M.T. Zingraff, J. Leiter, K.A. Myers, and M. Johnson, Child Maltreatment and Youthful Problem Behavior, Criminology, Volume 31, 1993.
  15. C. Smith and T.P. Thornberry, The Relationship between Childhood Maltreatment and Adolescent Involvement in Delinquency, Criminology, Volume 33, 1995.
  16. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  17. E. Piper, Violent Recidivism and Chronicity in the 1985 Philadelphia Cohort, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Volume 15, 1985.
  18. T.P. Thornberry, D. Huizinga, and R. Loeber, The Prevention of Serious Delinquency and Violence: Implications from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, in Sourcebook on Serious, Violent, and Chronic Offenders, edited by J.C. Howell, B. Krisberg, J.D. Hawkins, and J.J. Wilson, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, Inc., 1995.
  19. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  20. J. David Hawkins, Todd I. Herrenkohl, David P. Farrington, Devon Brewer, Richard F. Catalano, Tracy W. Harachi, and Lynn Cothern, Predictors of Youth Violence, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, April 2000.
  21. D.P. Farrington, Early Predictors of Adolescent Aggression and Adult Violence, Violence and Victims, Number 4, 1989.