Prevention: Risk and Protective Factor Theory

More than 20 years of research has examined the characteristics of effective prevention programs. One component shared by effective programs is a focus on risk and protective factors that influence drug use. Protective factors are characteristics that decrease an individual’s risk for a substance abuse disorder. They include:

  • Strong and positive family bonds
  • Parental monitoring of children's activities and peers
  • Clear rules of conduct that are consistently enforced within the family
  • Involvement of parents in the lives of their children
  • Success in school performance; strong bonds with institutions, such as school and religious organizations
  • Adoption of conventional norms about drug use

Risk factors increase the likelihood of substance abuse problems and include:

  • Chaotic home environments, particularly in which parents abuse substances or suffer from mental illnesses
  • Ineffective parenting, especially with children with difficult temperaments or conduct disorders
  • Lack of parent-child attachments and nurturing
  • Inappropriately shy or aggressive behavior in the classroom
  • Failure in school performance
  • Poor social coping skills
  • Affiliations with peers displaying deviant behaviors
  • Perceptions of approval of drug-using behaviors in family, work, school, peer, and community environments

Source: NIDA Notes (2002). Risk and Protective Factors in Substance Abuse Prevention, 16(6), Retrieved from

The National Institute of Drug Abuse describes the following principles for adhering to the risk and protective factors model in prevention programs:

PRINCIPLE 1 - Prevention programs should enhance protective factors and reverse or reduce risk factors.

  • The risk of becoming a drug abuser involves the relationship among the number and type of risk factors (e.g., deviant attitudes and behaviors) and protective factors (e.g., parental support).

  • The potential impact of specific risk and protective factors changes with age. For example, risk factors within the family have greater impact on a younger child, while association with drug-abusing peers may be a more significant risk factor for an adolescent.

  • Early intervention with risk factors (e.g., aggressive behavior and poor self-control) often has a greater impact than later intervention by changing a child’s life path (trajectory) away from problems and toward positive behaviors.

  • While risk and protective factors can affect people of all groups, these factors can have a different effect depending on a person’s age, gender, ethnicity, culture, and environment.

PRINCIPLE 2 - Prevention programs should address all forms of drug abuse, alone or in combination, including the underage use of legal drugs (e.g., tobacco or alcohol); the use of illegal drugs (e.g., marijuana or heroin); and the inappropriate use of legally obtained substances (e.g., inhalants), prescription medications, or over-the-counter drugs.

PRINCIPLE 3 - Prevention programs should address the type of drug abuse problem in the local community, target modifiable risk factors, and strengthen identified protective factors.

PRINCIPLE 4 - Prevention programs should be tailored to address risks specific to population or audience characteristics, such as age, gender, and ethnicity, to improve program effectiveness.


Substance Abuse Prevention

Last updated November 1, 2016