Every child has a mix of risk factors and protective factors in his or her life which determine the potential threat of drugs and alcohol entering a child’s life.

In recent years there has been a significant amount of research highlighting both risk factors and protective factors for young people regarding decisions they might make in critical areas of life, including whether to use drugs or alcohol. The fact is, every child has a mix of risk factors as well as protective factors in his or her life. These determine the potential threat of drugs and alcohol entering a child’s life. Let’s take a look at both kinds of factors and why it is helpful for you to understand how they interact in your child’s life.

Risk factors

These are things that put a child at risk of making poor decisions or engaging in unhealthy behaviours.

Risk factors for children include:

  • low self-esteem

  • inability to respond appropriately to negative pressure from peers

  • lack of information to help them make wise decisions

  • learning difficulties at school and low grades

  • unhealthy relationship with a parent

  • being bullied at school

  • stressful home environment

When factors such as the ones listed above touch a child’s life, that child is much more at risk of making a poor decision in regard to drinking and drug use. Add to this mounting pressure from his peers, and it becomes even tougher for a child to make the right decision.

Therefore, as a parent, one of your top priorities must be to try to minimise the presence of these risk factors, better preparing your child for the challenges he’ll face as he moves into adolescence and beyond.

Protective factors

These are things that help children achieve developmental milestones relative to their age and therefore be more resilient when negative influences appear.

Some protective factors include the following:

  • building your child’s self-esteem

  • helping your child to develop strong interpersonal skills

  • giving your child a loving and supportive home environment

  • setting healthy boundaries and reinforcing consequences

  • encouraging your child to get involved in recreational activities

Although children with more risk factors are at risk of engaging in drug use or other problem behaviours, it doesn’t mean they will automatically engage in high-risk activities. The presence of protective factors can balance and buffer the risk factors.

At a time when your child may be going through many changes and stresses, building these protective factors into your home life and relationship with your child will help her to be stronger when facing the challenges of adolescence. That’s why it’s important to understand and respond to the factors that are influencing your child.

And that’s still not all. I’ve saved the most important truth for last.

Tips for building protective factors

Consider these practical ways you can be intentional in building protective factors into your child’s life:

  • Sit down together for meals as a family

  • Go on monthly outings or activities where the whole family can participate

  • Support your child as he or she strives to fulfill a dream

  • If you have more than one child, ensure that you are dividing your time fairly between your children and in pursuing what is of interest to each of them

  • Plan one-on-one time with your kids and let them choose the activity. This is a great time to focus on appreciating something they enjoy doing. You might be surprised at what you’ll learn!

Create a supportive, affirming home environment. Encouraging words, rather than critical barbs, get much better results. Hugs, kisses, play wrestling and a pat on the shoulder communicate to children that they are special to you. The last thing your child needs from you is the knowledge that she will never be good enough or measure up to the expectations you have for her.
Show a united front with your spouse when it comes to reinforcing boundaries and consequences so that your children can see this is something you have discussed and agreed on together. Children are masters when it comes to playing one parent off against the other.

Glenn Williams

Glenn Williams is the former COO for Focus on the Family USA and has extensive background in counselling youth and families. As a psychologist and former pastor, Glenn co-authored the program How to Drug Proof Your Kids and was an expert/contributing author to the parenting curriculum produced by Focus on the Family, Starting Points.

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