Protective factors pertain to characteristics, conditions, or behaviors that mitigate or reduce the risk of negative outcomes and enhance the ability of individuals to face adversity and challenges (Crisp & Turner, 2020).
Protective factors serve a critical role in promoting mental health and well-being.
These elements are not just personal attributes. The environment plays a significant role (Bem & De Jong, 2013). For instance, a stable family environment, access to good education, and strong social support systems are all considered protective factors.
Specific examples of protective factors include healthy emotional development, positive self-concept, strong coping skills, and supportive relationships (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). For instance, a child with a sound emotional development might handle traumatic situations better than a child who lacks the same (Reber, 2019).
Protective factors are not static. They evolve over an individual’s lifespan, influenced by their experiences, relationships, and environment.
Crucially, by harnessing these protective elements, psychological interventions can be tailored to bolster an individual’s resilience, thus reducing the incidence or severity of psychological disorders (Crisp & Turner, 2020).
Protective Factors Examples
1. Individual Level
- Emotional resilience: This refers to one’s ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity or stressful situations (Miller, 2016). On the other hand, emotional instability, marked by excessive emotional reactions and frequently changing moods, could be a risk factor.
- Communication skills: These are abilities that enable an individual to convey and understand information effectively and efficiently, contributing to stronger relationships and better conflict resolution (Reber, 2019). Impaired communication skills, characterized by difficulties in expressing oneself clearly and understanding others, could serve as the opposite, being a risk factor.
- Intellectual capabilities: These include cognitive skills and abilities, such as the ability to solve problems, think critically, and learn from experiences, which help an individual navigate life successfully (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). The counterbalancing risk factor could be cognitive impairments or learning difficulties, possibly slowing academic achievement and problem-solving.
- Positive coping strategies: These are adaptive methods and techniques that individuals use to handle stressors or challenges effectively (Bem & De Jong, 2013). However, maladaptive coping strategies, like avoidance or substance use, could present a risk factor.
- Engagement in recreational activities: This refers to participation in enjoyable pastimes, sports, or hobbies, fostering contentment, stress relief, and a balanced lifestyle (Crisp & Turner, 2020). The lack of such engagement may be a risk factor, possibly leading to a sedentary lifestyle or social isolation.
- Positive beliefs about oneself: This encompasses the perception of self-worth and having a positive self-image (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Conversely, low self-esteem or a negative self-image could pose a risk factor, often correlating with mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
- Avoidance of high-risk behaviors: This example denotes the proactive effort to steer clear of actions and behaviors that could lead to harmful circumstances or consequences (Miller, 2016). On the contrary, engagement in high-risk behaviors, such as reckless driving or substance use, serves as a risk factor.
- Sense of purpose or future orientation: This describes having clear, meaningful goals and a forward-looking perspective, guiding one’s decisions and actions (Reber, 2019). A counterbalancing risk factor may be a lack of direction or purpose, potentially making an individual more vulnerable to depression or aimlessness.
2. Family Level
- Parental supervision and involvement: This refers to the active interest and participation of parents in their child’s activities, encouraging a healthy development and behavior (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). A counterbalancing risk factor could be parental neglect, leading to feelings of abandonment and psychological distress in children.
- Regular family routines (like meals together): Family rituals such as having meals together foster intimacy, stability, and develop emotional bonding (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Irregular or disrupted family routines might serve as a risk factor, causing instability and emotional insecurity.
- Shared family beliefs and values: These are shared ideologies within a family that cultivate a sense of unity, identity, and mutual understanding (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Conflict in family beliefs and values could pose a risk factor, leading to familial discord or feelings of isolation in family members.
- Adequate parental mental health: Healthy mental and emotional state of parents contributes significantly to secure and nurturing environments for children (Crisp & Turner, 2020). In contrast, parental mental health issues could constitute a risk factor and may result in difficulties in caregiving or secure attachment formation.
- Family members serve as positive role models: Positive role modeling within a family inspires healthy behaviors, attitudes, and ethical values (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Absence or presence of negative role models in the family could serve as a risk factor, potentially encouraging detrimental behaviors or attitudes.
- Open channels of communication: Frequent, transparent and respectful communication within a family fosters trust and closeness (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Poor communication, characterized by frequent misunderstandings or lack of respectful conversation, can be a potential risk factor.
- Economic stability: It provides a secure environment for the family, reducing stress related to basic needs and encouraging a focus on development and well-being (Crisp & Turner, 2020). In opposition, economic instability or poverty poses a risk factor, potentially leading to chronic stress, insecurity, and limited opportunities.
- Extended family support: The support from a larger family network can offer additional resources, guidance and resilience in times of stress (Reber, 2019). Conversely, lack of extended family support or estrangement may be a risk factor, potentially resulting in a reduced support network and increased vulnerability during crises.
3. Peer Level
- Positive social connections: These encourage emotional health and enhance one’s sense of belonging and acceptance (Reber, 2019). The counterbalancing risk factor might be social isolation or having negative or toxic social connections.
- Peers with pro-social attitudes: Such peers encourage positive social interaction, empathy, and cooperative behavior (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Conversely, peers with anti-social tendencies or a disregard for others’ rights can serve as a risk factor.
- Engagement in group activities or clubs: This can bolster self-esteem, cooperation, and a sense of belonging (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Lack of such engagement, leading to social isolation and limited teamwork experiences, can constitute a risk factor.
- Peer recognition for positive behavior: Recognition from peers for desirable behavior reinforces that behavior and promotes self-esteem (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). On the other hand, a risk factor could be peer recognition or reinforcement for undesirable or harmful behaviors.
- Good conflict resolution skills among peers: Such skills encourage mutual respect, understanding, and peaceful resolution of disagreements (Reber, 2019). The lack of conflict resolution skills among peers, leading to frequent fights or unresolved disagreements, may be a risk factor.
- Positive peer pressure: It propels individuals towards beneficial behaviors and conformity to group norms that foster personal and group well-being (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Contrastingly, negative peer pressure, encouraging engagement in risky or harmful activities, stands as a risk factor.
4. School Level
- Extracurricular activities: Such activities boost students’ social and teamwork skills, and instill a sense of belongingness (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Conversely, a lack of extracurricular opportunities may be a risk factor, potentially limiting a student’s holistic development.
- Positive behavioral interventions and supports: These are comprehensive school-wide strategies designed to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce problematic ones (Reber, 2019). A risk factor might be the lack of such systematic supports, possibly leading to unaddressed behavioral problems.
- Effective classroom management: It fosters a conducive learning environment that enhances student engagement and academic results (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Poor classroom management can serve as a risk factor, potentially leading to disruptive behaviors and hindered learning.
- Student voice and empowerment: Recognizing and validating students’ ideas and opinions boosts their sense of belonging, engagement, and autonomy (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). A counterbalancing risk factor could be a repressed or ignored student voice, possibly making students feel undervalued or disengaged.
- Mentorship programs: These provide guidance, support, and enhance students’ skills, resilience and aspirations (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Lack of such programs may be seen as a risk factor, possibly leading to students feeling unsupported or lost.
- Anti-bullying policies and practices: These measures ensure a safe and respectful school environment for all students (Miller, 2016). In contrast, ineffective anti-bullying policies or practices serve as a risk factor, potentially leaving victims of bullying without recourse.
- Cultural inclusivity: This practice recognizes and respects diversity, fostering unity, understanding, and respect among students of all backgrounds (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Lack of cultural inclusivity can act as a risk factor, possibly leading to exclusion or discrimination based on cultural differences.
- Opportunities for academic advancement: These provide platforms for students to excel, gain recognition, and enhance their abilities (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Limited opportunities for academic advancement serve as a risk factor, potentially restricting student achievement and motivation.
5. Community and Society Level
- Availability of community resources (libraries, recreational centers, etc.): These provide constructive avenues for leisure, learning, and integrate individuals into the community (Crisp & Turner, 2020). A lack of such community resources might be a risk factor, potentially leading to isolation or limited opportunities for enrichment.
- Positive role models in the community: These figures inspire constructive behaviors, reinforcing social norms and ethics (Reber, 2019). In contrast, lack of positive role models or a prevalence of negative role models in the community could act as a risk factor, encouraging detrimental behaviors or attitudes.
- Engaged local businesses and organizations: These entities contribute to a vibrant community life and provide employment and other opportunities (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). A lack of community engagement from local businesses and organizations can be considered a risk factor, possibly leading to local economic instability.
- Public spaces that encourage community interaction: Such spaces facilitate communal activities, fostering a sense of belonging and shared identity (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). However, lack of communal spaces can be a risk factor, reducing opportunities for social interaction and community cohesion.
- Low levels of neighborhood violence: Peaceful communities foster a sense of safety and well-being among residents (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Conversely, high levels of neighborhood violence constitute a risk factor, contributing to a climate of fear and insecurity.
- Active community groups or associations: These foster socio-cultural participation and community development, and often provide local support in times of need (Crisp & Turner, 2020). The absence of active community groups or associations can be a risk factor, leading to decreased community cohesion and support.
- Access to mental health and counseling services: Ready access to such services supports community members’ emotional and psychological well-being (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). A lack of access to mental health services can act as a risk factor, leading to unaddressed mental health issues.
- Culturally relevant programs and services: These respect and accommodate diverse cultural backgrounds, further fostering inclusion and appreciation (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Paucity of such culturally relevant services could potentially be a risk factor, resulting in feeling of marginalization among certain cultural groups.
Protective Factors vs Risk Factors
Protective factors and risk factors are two critical concepts that help explain the potential development of mental health disorders and overall psychological well-being (Crisp & Turner, 2020).
They act as opposite forces, one impairing resilience and increasing vulnerability, while the other boosts resilience and reduces susceptibility:
- Risk factors are influences that increase the likelihood of the onset, severity, and duration of major health problems (Bem & De Jong, 2013). For example, poverty, exposure to violence, parental substance abuse, and chronic illness are all risk factors associated with mental health disorders (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
- Protective factors are elements that decrease the likelihood of negative outcomes and bolster resilience (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). They buffer individuals from risks or adversities that could potentially lead to problematic developmental outcomes or mental health disorders (Miller, 2016). For instance, having a strong social support system, excelling in academic achievements, and possessing robust emotional intelligence are considered protective factors (Reber, 2019).
A balance between the protective factors and risk factors largely determines an individual’s mental health and well-being (Crisp & Turner, 2020). This understanding helps professionals pinpoint intervention strategies and ultimately aims for strengthening protective factors and mitigating risk factors.
|Aspect||Risk Factors||Protective Factors|
|Definition||Conditions or attributes that increase the likelihood of a negative outcome.||Conditions or attributes that reduce or mitigate the likelihood of a negative outcome.|
|Examples (Individual Level)||– Low self-esteem|
– Poor coping mechanisms
– Impulse control problems
|– Emotional resilience|
– Positive coping strategies
– Sense of purpose or future orientation
|Examples (Family Level)||– Family conflict|
– Parental substance abuse
– Economic hardship
|– Close family bonds|
– Supportive home environment
– Economic stability
|Examples (Community Level)||– High neighborhood deviance|
– Limited access to services
– Social isolation or marginalization
|– Active community groups|
– Access to mental health services
– Availability of community resources
|Potential Outcomes||– Increased vulnerability to adverse effects|
– Heightened chances of negative life events
– Reduced resilience against challenges
|– Enhanced ability to face challenges|
– Reduced chances of negative life events
– Strengthened resilience and positive adaptation
A Theoretical Framework: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory offers a comprehensive framework that acknowledges the multiple levels of environment influencing an individual’s development – ranging from immediate contexts like family, to broader societal or cultural constructs (Eriksson, Ghazinour, & Hammarstrom, 2018).
In this scope, risk and protective factors can be mapped onto the different ecological levels in Bronfenbrenner’s model – individual, family, peer, school, and community levels, as shown below:
- Microsystem: The Individual level aligns with the theory’s Microsystem – where the person is directly interacting with their immediate environment like family and peers (Eriksson, Ghazinour, & Hammarstrom, 2018). For example, intellectual capabilities (a personal protective factor) or lack thereof (risk factor) directly influence how a student interacts with the school environment.
- Mesosystem: The Family and Peer levels align with both Bronfenbrenner’s Microsystem and Mesosystem – highlighting the interconnection between different direct environments, such as family influencing peers and vice versa. Parental supervision (family protective factor) or peer recognition for positive behavior (peer protective factor) influences how individuals build relationships and view themselves (Eriksson, Ghazinour, & Hammarstrom, 2018).
- Exosystem: The School level aligns with the Exosystem – spheres that individuals might not directly engage, but indirectly influence them nonetheless (Rupert, 2017). Effective classroom management (a protective factor) shapes the overall learning environment, indirectly affecting a student’s educational progress.
- Macrosystem: Lastly, the Community level corresponds with the Macrosystem – the overarching attitudes and ideologies of the society (Rupert, 2017). A community’s cultural inclusivity (a protective factor) can constitute the ethos of that society, influencing the individuals’ worldview and sense of identity.
By integrating the idea of risk and protective factors across these levels, Bronfenbrenner’s theory offers a holistic approach to understanding and intervening in human development. It provides a solid foundation to formulate interventions that aim to strengthen protective factors and minimize risk factors at respective ecological levels (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020).
Protective factors in psychology are pivotal to understanding resilience and well-being within individuals and communities. Established interventions focus on maximizing these elements while mitigating risk factors to effectively foster emotional and psychological health across the life span. Future developments in psychology are likely to continue investigating the role and efficacy of protective factors in promoting mental well-being.
Bem, S., & De Jong, H. L. (2013). Theoretical issues in psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.
Crisp, R. J. and Turner, R. N. (2020). Essential Social Psychology. London: Sage.
Eriksson, M., Ghazinour, M. & Hammarström, A. (2018). Different uses of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory in public mental health research: What is their value for guiding public mental health policy and practice? Social Theory and Health 16, 414–433. doi: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41285-018-0065-6
Hewstone, M. and Stroebe, W. (2020). An Introduction to Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Kassin, S., Privitera, J. and Clayton, K. (2022). Essentials of Psychology. New York: Sage.
Miller, H. (2016). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology. New York: Sage.
Reber, R. (2019). Psychology: The Basics. London: Taylor & Francis.
Rupert, A. (2017). A socio-ecological framework for mental health and well-being. Advances in Mental Health 15(2), 105-107. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/18387357.2017.1342902
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]