What are risk and protective factors and what do they have to do with substance use disorders?

by Joseph Byrum

There are several reasons why kids and teens experiment with alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. They may try a drug because they feel like all of their friends are doing it, but there are also other factors that can lead kids and teens to try substances. Understanding risk factors for kids and teens can help adults and educators identify those who need help.

Risk Factors and Protective Factors

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), risk factors are defined as “the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood or negative outcomes.”

Common risk factors include:

  • Availability of substances in the community
  • Abusive family members
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Poverty
  • Substance abuse from family or friends
  • Academic failure
  • Mental illness
  • Inadequate supervision

Conversely, protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes or that reduce a risk factor’s impact. Protective factors may be seen as positive countering events.

Common protective factors include:

  • Academic success
  • Strong attachment to community
  • Involvement in school clubs or sports
  • Parental support and monitoring
  • Self-control and resiliency

Risk factors typically have a positive correlation with one another and a negative correlation with protective factors. This means that kids and teens with a few risk factors have a greater chance of experiencing more risk factors and fewer protective factors. According to SAMHSA, risk and protective factors also have a cumulative effect on development, meaning young people with multiple risk factors have a higher chance of developing a condition that impacts their physical or mental health and young people with multiple protective factors are at a reduced risk.

These correlative and cumulative factors emphasize the need for early intervention and interventions that target multiple factors.

What Next Step Community Solutions and our coalitions are doing.

At Next Step Community Solutions, our substance abuse prevention coalitions work to prevent youth substance abuse and addiction at its source.

How we help:

  • We provide group-based presentations to promote positive social norms and educate students on the dangers and consequences of underaged drinking, Rx misuse, vaping, and marijuana.
  • We offer informative presentations that provide parents with the tools and resources necessary to prevent teen substance use at home
  • We work with schools to identify top needs, develop individualized prevention strategies, and measure effectiveness.
  • We partner with law enforcement agencies across East Texas for the twice-yearly DEA Take Back Event to get unused and unwanted Rx drugs out of people’s medicine cabinets
  • We partner with coalition members to spread our substance abuse prevention message

Over the years, we’ve educated over 24,000 students on the dangers of substance abuse and over 6,000 parents on their role in prevention, installed over a dozen permanent Rx disposal drop boxes throughout East Texas, and distributed thousands of disposal pouches. We have strengthened partnerships with coalition members across several different sectors and have reached thousands of East Texans with our message.


According to the Partnership to End Addiction, 90% of people with addictions started using substances in their teen years.  While risk factors and previous use do not determine a child’s destiny, addressing underlying risk factors and promoting protective factors with kids and teens are important ways to reduce the likelihood of a substance abuse problem in the future.