Protective Factors: On the Road to Prevention Replacing the Need for Intervention

For many years, child psychologists and child abuse prevention efforts targeted the reduction or or elimination of risk factors to shield children from negative outcomes. New research has found, though, that the most successful interventions don’t just target reducing risk factors but work to promote protective factors.

Programs and agencies seeking to strengthen families are interested in understanding how risk and protective factors interact to affect children’s ability to avoid adverse childhood events and thrive. Focusing on protective factors is crucial to the efforts of families, communities, and society as a whole when it comes to ensuring families are safe, healthy, and positive places for children to develop!

This blog post gives an overview of protective factors. In upcoming posts, we’ll dive into each of the key protective factors and offer our recommendations for putting them into practice with the kids we love.

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Protective Factors: What Are They?

Protective factors are conditions or attributes of families, communities, or society at large that support healthy development and well-being of children and families. These factors help children function well at home, in school, and out in the community. Some also serve as buffers--helping parents use resources, support, and coping strategies that allow them to parent effectively, even when their lives are stressful.

In a previous post, we discussed Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and we talked about some of the protective factors that you can use to buffer the kids you know who have been through traumatic events. Now we’ll dig a little deeper and look at the some additional information about protective factors.  Future posts will include practical steps--what can you actually do to support families you know?

Protective Factors Supporting Families:

1. Building Parental Resilience

Resilience is defined as the flexibility and inner strength to bounce back when things don’t go well for us. Parents who have tools for coping with stress and the occasional crisis, have resilience.  

2. Seeking Social Connections

Parents who have a network of supportive friends, families, and neighbors around them often find it easier to care for their children and themselves. Everyone needs people they can lean on from time to time.

3. Learning about Parenting and Child Development

Parents who understand generally what to expect as their child grows and figures out how to navigate the world are set up for success. They are more likely to communicate respectfully and effectively, provide consistent rules and expectations, set developmentally appropriate boundaries, and promote independence.  Different developmental moments can be challenging (as the parent of a teenager I am in a moment that pushes my buttons) but understanding what’s normal and having effective strategies to respond makes it easier.

4. Concrete Support in Good Times and in Bad

Families who do not worry about basic needs (for food, clothing, housing, and transportation) have more time and energy to devote to their children’s well-being. Without these things, parents’ ability to support children’s development is at risk.

5. Developing Social and Emotional Competence in Kids

A strong and secure emotional bond between children and their caregivers is critical for children’s physical, social, and emotional development including their ability to form trusting relationships, express their feelings appropriately, calm down when they are upset, and to effectively solve problems.  EFC’s EChO program helps teachers introduce social and emotional skills into their classrooms.  One strategy they use is Tucker Turtle, a puppet and story that reminds children to stop, take 3 deep breaths and think of a solution when upset.  Recently, when it was time to bring the Tucker Turtle puppet back to the office, the children asked the EChO staff person why.  When she shared that other children needed to have Tucker Turtle, the children spontaneously shared about how they used the techniques outside the classroom.  One girl recounted that when she was at a birthday party and became frustrated, instead of getting more frustrated (and lashing out), she thought about Tucker Turtle, stopped, took deep breaths, and didn’t hurt her friends.   

By doing our parts to bring a comprehensive protective factor approach to our communities, we move closer to a preventative, rather than a purely reactive, society where everyone recognizes the value of health and well-being for all individuals, families, and communities. For further information about positive parenting and protective factors, take a look at the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Let’s take these protective factors back to school, work, and into our homes this fall and help these kids succeed!

If you or someone you know could use support, please contact us. Our staff is here to listen and to point you in the direction of resources designed to support families in the greater Durham area.