Protective Factors for Strengthening Families


Protective factors are conditions in families and communities that, when present, increase the health and well-being of children and families. They are attributes that serve as buffers, helping parents who might otherwise be at risk of abusing their children to find resources, supports or coping strategies that allow them to parent effectively, even under stress.

For years, researchers have been studying both the risk factors common among families experiencing abuse and neglect and those factors that protect families who are under stress. There is a growing interest in understanding the complex ways in which these risk and protective factors interact—within the context of a child’s family, community and society to affect both the incidence and consequences of abuse and neglect.


Why Focus on Promoting Protective Factors?

Research has found that successful interventions must both reduce risk factors and promote protective factors to ensure the well-being of children and families. Focusing on promoting protective factors is a more productive approach than reducing risk factors alone.

Which Protective Factors Are Most Important?

Research has also shown that the following five protective factors are linked to a lower incidence of child abuse and neglect:

1. Nurturing and Attachment

A child’s early experience of being nurtured and developing a bond with a caring adult affects all aspects of behavior and development. When parents and children have strong, warm feelings for one another, children develop trust that their parents will provide what they need to thrive, including love, acceptance, positive guidance and protection.

2. Knowledge of Parenting and of Child and Youth Development

Discipline is both more effective and more nurturing when parents know how to set and enforce limits and encourage appropriate behaviors based on the child’s age and level of development. Parents who understand how children grow and develop can provide an environment where children can live up to their potential. Child abuse and neglect are often associated with a lack of understanding of basic child development or an inability to put that knowledge into action. Timely mentoring, coaching, advice and practice may be more useful to parents than information alone.

3. Parental Resilience

Resilience is the ability to handle everyday stressors and recover from occasional crises. Parents who are emotionally resilient have a positive attitude, creatively solve problems, effectively address challenges and are less likely to direct anger and frustration at their children. In addition, these parents are aware of their own challenges—for example, those arising from inappropriate parenting they received as children—and accept help and/or counseling when needed.

4. Social Connections

Evidence links social isolation and perceived lack of support to child maltreatment. Trusted and caring family and friends provide emotional support to parents by offering encouragement and assistance in facing the daily challenges of raising a family. Supportive adults in the family and the community can model alternative parenting styles and can serve as resources for parents when they need help.

5. Concrete Supports for Parents

Many factors beyond the parent-child relationship affect a family’s ability to care for their children. Parents need basic resources such as food, clothing, housing, transportation and access to essential services that address family-specific needs (such as child care and health care) to ensure the health and well-being of children. Some families may also need support connecting to social services such as alcohol and drug treatment, domestic violence counseling or public benefits. Providing or connecting families to the concrete supports that families need is critical. These combined efforts help families cope with stress and prevent situations where abuse and neglect could occur.

These protective factors are critical for all parents and caregivers, regardless of the child’s age, sex, ethnicity or racial heritage, economic status, special needs or whether he or she is raised by a single, married or divorced parent, or other caregivers. All of these factors work together to reinforce each other; for example, parents are more likely to be resilient in times of stress when they have social connections and a strong attachment to their child. Protective factors can also provide a helpful conceptual framework for guiding any provider’s work with children and their families and have been at the forefront of recent child abuse prevention public awareness campaigns.

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