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NIDA. (1996, June 1). Protective Factors Can Buffer High-Risk Youths from Drug Use. Retrieved from

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June 01, 1996
Robert Mathias

A NIDA-funded study has identified a number of protective factors that can help prevent high-risk youths from engaging in delinquency and drug use. An accumulation of these protective factors in different areas of an adolescent's life strongly predicts resistance to drug use and delinquency, the study indicates.

"Having protective factors in multiple domains, such as family, school, peers, and neighborhood, is what is particularly important" in buffering adolescents from the effects of earlier circumstances that place them at risk, says Dr. Terence Thornberry of the State University of New York at Albany, who directed the study.

Not all children exposed to known risk factors go on to drug use and abuse and delinquency during adolescence, notes Dr. Thornberry. However, while some research has been done on protective factors that increase resistance to those risk factors, additional studies are needed. Identifying these protective factors may suggest possible new approaches to prevention interventions, he says.

Protective Factors

Family Factors Parental Supervision
Child's Attachment to Parent
Parent's Attachment to Child

Parent's Involvement in Child's Activities
Educational Factors Reading Percentile
Mathematics Percentile
Commitment to School
Attachment to Teachers

Aspirations to Go to College
Expectations to Go to College
Parent's Expectation for Child to Go to College
Parent's Values About College
Peer Factors Peers Have Conventional Values
Parent's Positive Evaluation of Peers
Other Resources Child's Self Esteem
Child's Involvement in Religious Activities
Child's Involvement in Prosocial Activities
Child Is Close to an Adult Outside the Family

The protective factors that are bold in this table consistently distinguished high-risk youths who remained drug free from high-risk youths who used drugs. The factors that are not bold did not have an impact on drug use among the high-risk youths in the study.

In the study, Dr. Thornberry and his colleagues, Dr. Carolyn Smith, Dr. Alan Lizotte, and Dr. Marvin Krohn, looked at the relationship of various risk and protective factors to drug use and delinquency among adolescents who had grown up in disadvantaged families. The analysis used data from the Rochester Youth Development Study, a long-term investigation of drug use and delinquency that Dr. Thornberry and his colleagues have been conducting since 1988. The study has been following a culturally diverse sample of 1,000 high-risk male and female adolescents, who live in Rochester, New York, since the 7th and 8th grades. The analysis reported here is based on data collected from this sample through the 11th and 12th grades.

In the study, the researchers identified adolescents in the 7th and 8th grades who had been exposed to such risk factors as having an unemployed head of the household, family members who had experienced drug problems or trouble with the law, or an official record of child abuse or maltreatment prior to their 12th birthday. The researchers considered youths who had been exposed to five or more of these risk factors to be at very high risk of drug use and delinquency. The study found that in the short term, as early as 12 to 18 months after they were first surveyed, these high-risk youths were much more likely than were youths with zero to four risk factors to be seriously delinquent and to use drugs. Yet, over this same period, 60 percent of these high-risk youths were resilient, that is, they had not become involved with serious delinquency or drug use.

The researchers identified a number of educational, family, and peer factors during the 8th and 9th grades that contributed to these short-term positive outcomes for the resilient youths. Among educational factors, being committed to their education, having an attachment to teachers, and high reading and mathematics achievement levels consistently distinguished resilient from nonresilient youth. Among family factors, closer parental supervision and a strong parent-child attachment were protective. Among peer relationships, peers having conventional values and parents' positive evaluation of peers were strongly related to resilience. Some protective factors that have been identified in the general literature on resilient youth, such as self-esteem and being close to an adult who does not live in the child's household, were not strong predictors of resistance to drug use and delinquency in this sample. The researchers have not yet examined risk and protective factors in relation to gender, race, and ethnicity, although they plan to do so.

The most important finding is that it is the accumulation of protective factors in school, family, and peer environments that has a positive effect on drug use over the longer term, Dr. Thornberry says. More than 56 percent of high-risk youths with six or more protective factors remained drug free up to 3 years after the protective factors were first measured in the 8th and 9th grades. By comparison, only a little over 20 percent of high-risk youths with three or fewer protective factors were still resistant to drug use 3 years later.

While a similar accumulation of protective factors also had a positive effect on delinquency in the short term, it did not significantly increase resistance to delinquency over the longer term of 3 years.

The study's findings suggest that the impact of specific protective factors may change during the life course, Dr. Thornberry says. As adolescents develop and new challenges arise, the effect of some protective factors may diminish and other factors may replace them. Thus, youths who are resilient at one stage of their development may not remain so in the face of changed circumstances, he says.

Nevertheless, the study's findings suggest possible areas for interventions to attempt to enrich the lives of at-risk youths, Dr. Thornberry says. However, he cautions that his study included relatively few of the individual-level factors, such as temperament, that have been linked with both risk and protective potential. Furthermore, although adolescents who have many protective factors in their natural environment do well, "we do not know if we can intervene to create those protective factors in the lives of youths who don't have them and, even if we can, whether it will have the same effect in reducing drug use," he says.

Graph of protective factors - see captionEffect of Number of Protective Factors on Drug Resistance to Use.

Other research involving children with conduct disorders - a group that is at high risk for drug abuse - suggests that it may be possible to foster the development of protective factors, says Dr. Ralph Tarter of the NIDA-funded Center for Education and Drug Abuse Research at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Tarter directs a comprehensive, long-term family study that is looking at the biological, psychological, and social factors underlying drug abuse among a large group of at-risk boys and girls. "There is research that shows that interventions can increase the effectiveness and management skills of parents of these kids with conduct disorders," he says. However, these interventions only address conduct disorder, which is just one aspect of these children's drug abuse vulnerability, he cautions. Many other individual, family, peer, and community risk factors may also put these adolescents at risk of drug abuse, he notes.

"At the highest levels of serious drug use, adolescents have multiple risk factors and there is much evidence of co-occurring problem behaviors," Dr. Thornberry agrees. To address the unique configuration of risk and protective factors in the life of an at-risk individual, an intervention program "would have to address all the domains, assess each individual to see which factors would be salient for that individual, and be prepared to offer services in the appropriate areas," Dr. Thornberry concludes.


  • Smith, C.; Lizotte, A.J.; Thornberry, T.P.; and Krohn, M.D. Resilient youth: Identifying factors that prevent high-risk youth from engaging in delinquency and drug use. In: Hagan, J., ed. Delinquency and Disrepute in the Life Course. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1995, pp. 217-247.