A protective factor is something that helps to prevent problems. A risk factor is something that leads to problems.Mental health problems are complex issues and are never the result of one risk factor. Someone who has several risk factors could have coped better with problems than someone else who experienced less risk factors. It is important to remember that each individual person experiences stress, pain, and risk in different ways.


  • Family history of mental health problems
  • Complications during pregnancy or birth
  • Personal history of Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Chronic medical condition such as cancer or diabetes, especially hypothyroidism or other brain-related illness such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Poor nutrition and lack of sleep


  • Stressful life situations, such as financial problems, death of a loved one, broken relationships, changing school, moving to a new place
  • Traumatic life experiences, such as violence, rape
  • Low self-esteem, feeling of being incapable, negative view of life, poor coping skills
  • Poor academic achievement leading to rejection and disapporoval



  • Being abused or neglected as a child
  • Being in an abusive relationship or friendship
  • Having few friends or few healthy relationships
  • Recent loss, either by death, divorce, or other means
  • Bullying, either as the victim or perpetrator
  • Growing up, or currently living, in poverty
  • Poor social skills, poor communication skills
  • Discrimination
  • Lack of access to support services

Common Protective Factors

As youth grow and fulfill the roles expected of them there are factors in their environment that promote or hinder the process. These are frequently referred to as protective and risk factors.

The presence or absence and various combinations of protective and risk factors contribute to the mental health of youth. Identifying protective and risk factors in youth may guide the prevention and intervention strategies to pursue with them. Protective and risk factors may also influence the course mental health disorders might take if present.


  • Healthy diet, exercise
  • Reaching milestones of development (like puberty) on time
  • Sleeping adequately
  • Focus on making healthy food and beverage choices from all five food groups including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy to get the nutrients you need.


  • Reliable support and discipline from parents
  • Following rules at home, school, work
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Good coping skills and problem solving skills
  • Sense of self-sufficiency/ being competent
  • Optimism
  • Positive self-regard/ feeling good about yourself
  • Accepting the way you look


  • Ability to make friends and get along with others
  • Good  relationships with friends and colleagues
  • Supportive relationship with family
  • Participation in sports team, club, community, or religious group
  • Economic/Financial Security
  • Access to support services like doctors,counsellors

A protective factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, or community (including peers and culture) level that is associated with a lower likelihood of problem outcomes or that reduces the negative impact of a risk factor on problem outcomes.”1 Conversely, a risk factor can be defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precedes and is associated with a higher likelihood of problem outcomes.”2 The table below provides examples of protective and risk factors by five domains: youth, family, peer, community, and society.

Risk and Protective Factors for Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders in Adolescents

Risk Factors


Protective Factors

  • Female gender
  • Early puberty
  • Difficult temperament: inflexibility, low positive mood, withdrawal, poor concentration
  • Low self-esteem, perceived incompetence, negative explanatory and inferential style
  • Anxiety
  • Low-level depressive symptoms and dysthymia
  • Insecure attachment
  • Poor social skills: communication and problem-solving skills
  • Extreme need for approval and social support
  • Low self-esteem
  • Shyness
  • Emotional problems in childhood
  • Conduct disorder
  • Favorable attitudes toward drugs
  • Rebelliousness
  • Early use of tobbaco/gutka/alcohol
  • Behavior that involves breaking laws
  • Head injury
  • Drug use like Marijuana 
  • Childhood exposure to lead or mercury (neurotoxins)


  • Positive physical development
  • Academic achievement/intellectual development
  • High self-esteem
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Good coping skills and problem-solving skills
  • Engagement and connections in two or more of the following contexts: school, with peers, in athletics, employment, religion, culture
  • Parental depression
  • Parent-child conflict
  • Poor parenting
  • Negative family environment (may include substance abuse in parents)
  • Child abuse/maltreatment
  • Single-parent family Divorce
  • Marital conflict
  • Family conflict
  • Parent with anxiety
  • Parental/marital conflict
  • Family conflict (interactions between parents and children and among children)
  • Parental drug/alcohol use
  • Parental unemployment
  • Alcohol/drug use among parents
  • Lack of adult supervision
  • Poor attachment with parents
  • Family dysfunction
  • Family member with schizophrenia
  • Poor parental supervision
  • Parental depression
  • Sexual abuse


  • Family provides structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability
  • Supportive relationships with family members
  • Clear expectations for behavior and values
  • Peer rejection
  • Stressful events
  • Poor academic achievement
  • Poverty
  • Community-level stressful or traumatic events
  • School-level stressful or traumatic events
  • Community violence
  • School violence
  • Poverty
  • Traumatic event
  • School failure
  • Low commitment to school
  • Not college bound
  • Aggression toward peers
  • Associating with drug-using peers
  • Societal/community norms favor alcohol and drug use
  • Urban setting
  • Poverty
  • Associating with deviant peers
  • Loss of close relationship or friends

School, Neighborhood, and Community

  • Presence of mentors and support for development of skills and interests
  • Opportunities for engagement within school and community
  • Positive norms
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Physical and psychological safety

Adapted from O’Connell, M. E., Boat, T., & Warner, K. E.. (2009). Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2009). Risk and protective factors for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders across the life cycle. Retrieved from 

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