Risk Factors versus Protective Factors

A ground-breaking study originally completed at Kaiser-Permanente from 1995-1997 examined the relationship between childhood abuse and neglect (or, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)) and later health and well-being. The study taught us that the more a child is exposed to ACEs, or Toxic Stress, the higher his/her vulnerability to a variety of behavioral, mental health/substance abuse and other problems later in life.

The takeaway message for the prevention community is that

a) Behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse are often an attempt by the individual to cope with overwhelming and incredibly damaging life events;

b) Substance misuse and other risky or unhealthy behaviors do not occur in isolation.

c) Simply educating the broad population about the risks and dangers of drugs is insufficient. Comprehensive healing for those affected by ACES is imperative. Read more about why one doctor says “Addiction shouldn’t be called “addiction”. It should be called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking.”


Does this mean that one will only develop a substance problem if he/she has been abused? Does this mean that everyone with a history of adverse experiences will inevitably abuse substances?

No--substance misuse can potentially affect anyone and there have also been many studies about resilience--how people survive extraordinary circumstances and DON’T go on to have mental health or substance abuse issues--but generally, the more adverse experiences, the higher the risk. Read more about how Toxic Stress changes the brain.


So What Now?

Just as there are risk factors, there are also protective factors. Our job is to help increase protective factors while reducing risk factors.

 The Five Core Protective Factors

  • Strong bonds exist between youth and adults

  • Youth gain the skills necessary for becoming a mature adult

  • There are opportunities for youth to have meaningful involvement in the community

  • Community, school and family involvement is recognized

  • Healthy beliefs and clear standards are communicated and modeled by adults

The Risk Factors

In addition to general risk factors such as Adverse Childhood Experiences, some studies suggest that certain personality traits may indicate a predisposition for abusing substances. Read more here.

The following risk factors have been identified from various data collected over the years regarding trends in substance use and misuse.

  1. Having friends that use.

  2. Children who have positive (or favorable) attitudes toward alcohol and other drug use are more likely to start using. Allowing your child to use alcohol or other drugs, hosting parties where alcohol and other drugs are present and even asking your child to get you a beer from the refrigerator, light your cigarette, or to mix you a drink, can cause a positive association to form.

  3. Most adults and young people who have an alcohol or other drug use problem began drinking or using at an early age.  Children who begin to use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs before age 15 are twice as likely to develop problems with drugs, than are children who wait until they are older.

  4. Delaying first use until age 19 or older dramatically decreases the risk for  substance use problems. . In fact, young people who have not used tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs by age 21 are unlikely to ever abuse these substances.

  5. Communities with laws which are unfavorable toward drug use, such as higher taxes on alcohol, have lower rates of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

  6. Greater availability of drugs in schools, combined with inadequate policies against alcohol and other drug use, leads to a higher use of drugs among students.

  7. Students in grades 4 through 7 who do not perceive school as meaningful or rewarding, regardless of the reason, have a greater risk of getting into trouble with drugs.  And students who expect to attend college have significantly lower usage rates of drugs such as cocaine, stimulants, and hallucinogens.

  8. There is an increased risk for adolescent drug abuse when a child receives low or failing grades in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.

 Section Pages



VADIC  provides communities with informational resources pertaining to substance abuse and at-risk issues. VADIC is a grant-funded program, and its services are free for Vermonters. www.vadic.org


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