top of page


Protective Factors for Youth

Despite the facts that 11% of all U.S. youth drop out of school before high school graduation, that two-thirds of all high school seniors have used illegal drugs, that suicide is the second leading cause of death of U.S. youth, and that 15.7 million children lived below the federal poverty level in 1993 (McWhirter et al., 1998), it can be said that we live in fortunate times. This optimistic conclusion comes not from the statistics, but from the fact that we know something about how to prevent children from becoming negative statistics - about how to foster resiliency.

Four diverse, major studies are briefly reviewed below that encompass most of what is known about resiliency. This field of study is characterized by studies that emphasize a core set of resiliency factors, while also identifying other variables that also matter, but under complex conditions that are not yet fully understood. The four selected studies nicely illustrate this point and also provide the core information.

The Kauai longitudinal research (Werner & Smith, 1992) studied the development of all children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 and followed them for 32 years. One-third (N=201) were considered high risk, and two-thirds of those developed serious learning or behavior problems by age 18. The one-third of high-risk children who were resilient despite the odds tended to have an easy temperament, which elicited positive responses from others. This, in turn, enabled them to recruit positive adults to their aid. These children also tended to be autonomous, to possess good communication and problem-solving skills, to have an internal locus of control, a positive self-concept, good school achievement, and to be at least moderately intelligent. Their family usually had at least one positive care-giver, even if it wasn't a parent. Resilient boys had structure, rules, and a male role model, while resilient girls tended to have more independence, opportunity for risk taking, and a supportive female role model. In the community, the resilient children had mentors and/or a positive peer support group. Overall, the research concluded that the positive personal characteristics (self-esteem and easy temperament, for example) of the resilient child were the major predictors of positive outcomes. These qualities, in turn, attracted positive, supportive mentors and peers.

A recent cross-sectional research study (Leffert, Benson, Scales, Sharma, Drake, & Blyth, 1998) measured 40 "developmental assets" in about 100,000 children and adolescents from all over the U.S. (using convenience samples). The assets were qualitatively developed by examining extensive quantitative developmental research, and were grouped into eight major categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity. It is especially noteworthy that all 40 developmental assets were assessed with separate subscales for each asset for every participant. Since all assets were included in the regression analyses, variance was not counted repetitively for related assets such as school engagement (asset 22) and reading for pleasure (asset 25). In other words, correlated assets contributed only their unique variance to prediction of outcomes such as drug use. Thus, because all assets were included in analyses, a more accurate assessment of the variance contributed by each asset/construct could be obtained. The single best predictor of avoiding a host of negative behaviors (for example, drugs, violence, depression, suicide, school problems, and antisocial behaviors) was peer influence (associating oneself with pro-social groups) - by itself accounting for 41% of the variance after demographics were removed from the regression equation. Other important factors for avoiding negative behaviors included restraint, peaceful conflict resolution, achievement motivation, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.

The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (Blum, Beuhring, Shew, Bearinger, Sieving, and Resnick, 2000; Resnick, Bearman, Blum, Bauman, Harris, Jones, et al., 1997) randomly sampled roughly 90,000 adolescents (7th - 12th grade) from 134 schools around the United States and surveyed and interviewed the children, parents, and school administrators. This study measured individual variables (emotional distress, substance abuse, sexual behavior, religious identity, grades, violence, amount of paid work, perceived chance of dying before age 35, and self-esteem), family variables (parent-family connectedness, family activities, family presence, parental school expectations, parental sex expectations, and family suicide attempts), and school variables (connection to student, prejudice, attendance, dropout rate, class size, and education of teachers). Among the main findings, after demographics were controlled, were that family and school connectedness were protective against every health-risk behavior measure except pregnancy. On an individual level, self-esteem was the most protective factor. Having too much free time, associating with negative peers, working 20 or more hours a week for pay, anticipation of an untimely death, and academic problems were predictors of smoking, drinking, and acts of violence.

A qualitative synthesis (Benard, 1991) of over 100 resiliency-related studies revealed four main individual-level protective factors. Social skills such as empathy, communication, and prosocial behaviors were consistently helpful. Problem solving skills, a sense of control, and a sense of purpose or future were the other three protective factors. Families, schools, and communities all played an important protective role in resilient children's lives, with the main finding being that if support in one context was lacking or negative, another needed to make up for it. Aspects of protective environments included caring relationships with adults or peers, high expectations for contributing or doing well in school, and opportunities for meaningful participation such as being in a club or caring for a sibling.

In sum, these different studies highlight common protective factors across three levels - individual, family, and school. Resilient individuals tend to have good social skills, positive self-esteem, a sense of future, support from mentors or peers, and achievement in school. Resilient children have a connection to the family, a caring relationship with a care-giver, and structure such as boundaries and clear expectations. Connections to the school and to mentors were also protective.

  • Benard, B. (1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. Portland, OR: Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities.

  • Blum, R. W., Beuhring, T., Shew, M. L., Bearinger, L. H., Sieving, R. E., Resnick, M. D. (2000). The effects of race/ethnicity, income, and family structure on adolescent risk behaviors. American Journal of Public Health, 90, 1879 - 1884.

  • Leffert, N., Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Sharma, A. R., Drake, D. R., & Blyth, D. A. (1998). Developmental assets: Measurement and prediction of risk behaviors among adolescents. Applied Developmental Science, 2, 209 - 230.

  • McWhirter, J. J., McWhirter, B. T., McWhirter, A. M., & McWhirter, E. H. (1998). At-risk youth: A comprehensive response. Albany, NY : Brooks/Cole.

  • Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.
    Werner, E. E. (1995). Resilience in development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4, 81-82.

bottom of page