What are protective factors?
They are characteristics or conditions that reduce or buffer the effects of risk, stress, or trauma. A protective factor is an asset of some kind.
- A skill, personal attribute, or supportive relationship
- A community that offers supportive services
Why protective factors?
- Research has shown that the promotion of protective factors is a key intervention strategy that can improve social and emotional well-being in children and youth.
- Children who have experienced or are at risk for maltreatment, trauma, and/or exposure to violence can be a highly vulnerable population, however
- Outcomes for children can substantially improve by helping children and their families build protective factors.
For many years and in many cases, even now, the child abuse prevention field focused primarily on risk—how likely abuse or neglect might occur when risk factors are present. Risks, such as poverty, trauma, and disabilities, among others, are known to contribute to the likelihood that a child might be abused or neglected.
Yet most families—even those in risk—do not abuse or neglect their children. Certain conditions, when present in families’ lives, help them to overcome the odds that could otherwise lead to tragedy. Those conditions are protective factors.
Outcomes for children affected by trauma can be improved by helping them and their families build protective factors. In other words, protective factors help to mitigate risks; they can help families to weather life’s stress and trauma with less damage. Through building protective factors we can help families develop assets and skills for handling life’s challenges more effectively.
To learn more about what the research tells us about protective factors, please visit Research and Protective Factors
Specific Protective Factors
Research in the field is growing and we now understand there are many protective factors. FRIENDS, through its work with the Children’s Bureau, has concentrated primarily on six protective factors that are frequently a focus of prevention services in the CBCAP community. These are highlighted in the annual Prevention Resource Guide.
Clicking on each protective factor below will show a detailed description and how parents and programs can implement activities that help to build that protective factor.
We know that parents who understand child developmental stages are more likely to be consistent with rules and expectations and will communicate more effectively with their children.
Parents who understand their child’s changing needs over time and how to adjust their parenting style based on the child’s needs and temperament will experience less stress in parenting and reduce their risk for child abuse and neglect.
I am curious and responsive to what my child needs to be healthy and happy.
What does Knowledge of Parenting mean?
Parents and caregivers understand and use effective and positive parenting strategies and have age-appropriate expectations for children’s abilities.
Program Strategies that work here:
- Offer informal interactions with staff and coaching on specific challenges (e.g., inconsolable crying, biting, eating problems)
- Offer opportunities for parent education to be responsive to issues presented by parents in the moment
- Give parents the opportunity to network with each other
- Seek parent education that matches your child’s age
- Seek support from other parents to know you are not alone
- Find people you trust for information on what is normal for your child
We know that when families can provide the basics - food, clothing, shelter - they are better able to focus on other essential aspects of their family life.
Parents who do not have access to reliable sources of income or other resources often experience difficulties in many areas. They may be unable to access safe and stable housing, reliable health care, food, and other tangibles that contribute to health and well-being. These challenges make it hard to focus on other areas of stability and security and often consume valuable time and energy for parents. Gaining access to concrete supports can help to shift the focus from crisis or emergency needs and allow parents to have the ability to make a more stable environment for their family.
My family can access services and supports to meet our basic needs.
What does concrete support mean?
Families have access to tangible goods and services to help families cope with stress, particularly in times of crisis or intensified need.
Program Strategies that work here:
- Connect parents with economic resources such as job training and placement referrals
- Provide referrals for immediate crisis needs of food, clothing, and shelter
- Recognize challenges in this area and provide support (e.g., language barriers, domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse)
- Seek out and access services in your community
- Share resources with parents in your circle of friends and family
- Build your networks
We know that families with the ability to openly share positive and negative experiences and mobilize to accept, solve, and manage problems are more successful in daily life.
Helping parents to identify their strengths and resources can help to build resilience in times of need. Areas of strength may include problem-solving skills, faith, communication skills, flexibility, humor, and many others. Parents who can learn to identify and access outside supports when needed will experience less stress over time and have the ability to be more nurturing caregivers.
I will continue to have courage after a crisis and during stressful times.
What does resiliency mean?
Having adaptive skills and strategies to persevere in times of crisis. Resilience is the ability to effectively manage all types of challenges that come up in life.
Program Strategies that work here:
- Make mental health support an integral service that is seen as usual not stigmatizing
- Provide resources to parents around causes of stress and how it may affect health, relationships, and family
- Coach parents in skills such as planning, goal setting, problem-solving, and self-care
- Seek support from other parents in times of need
- Take time to take care of themselves
- Seek out assistance in decision-making if needed
We know that children who feel loved and supported by their parents tend to be more competent, happy, and healthy as they progress into adulthood. Parents who can help their children feel loved, safe, and supported throughout their life increase their child’s ability to cope with stress. Parents often feel tugged in many directions. The demands of work, school, home, finances, and other responsibilities can often feel overwhelming- sometimes, it can feel impossible to devote enough time to your children. The reality is that just a moment, a hug, a kiss, or a story at bedtime can make a big difference in the eyes of a child. Parents who can learn to focus on quality interactions with their children will be less stressed over time.
I have a strong bond with my child and spend time making sure they know they are loved every day.
What does nurturing and attachment mean?
The emotional tie along with a pattern of positive interaction between the parent and child that develops over time.
Program Strategies that work here:
- Offer parent education that shares information on how a strong parent-child bond enhances brain development and supports positive behavior later in life
- Emphasize the importance of connectedness with all significant adults for the child
- Recognize warning signs and ensure effective referrals for parents struggling in this area
- Connect with other families for support
- Learn skills to provide nurturing care
- Connect with treatment programs if you are struggling with depression
We know that being connected - to family, friends, and community- has shown to reduce the risk of harm to children. Parents who feel they have emotional support in times of need are better equipped to handle times of high stress or crisis. Parents who have someone to talk with about a bad day, to strategize with over a difficult parenting issue, or to have a fun evening out to take a break will feel more successful as a caregiver over time. These connections can be crucial components in many areas and should be fostered and encouraged.
I have people who know me well, friends I connect with, and at least one person who supports my parenting
What does social support mean?
Informal support (friends, family, and neighbors) that help provide for emotional needs or connection
Program Strategies that work here:
- Establish a welcoming space for parents to socialize
- Offer opportunities for parents to get together in “normalizing” situations (e.g., picnics, potlucks, block parties)
- Connect parents with other organizations that offer opportunities for parents to connect
- Plan or attend social events that help parents and children connect
- Work to make trusted connections in your community
- Surround yourselves with people who are positive supports
We know that children who can effectively and positively express their feelings and needs are more likely to develop strong, trusting, and cooperative relationships with others.
This asset begins to form in infancy—possibly in utero—and is fostered through nurturing interactions between child and caregiver. The environment around them impacts child and infant behaviors. When children interact with others in positive ways, and their actions result in reinforcement, they become better equipped to form bonds and self-regulate their emotions and behavior as well as communicate their feelings and solve problems effectively.
In addition, parents and caregivers are less likely to feel stressed or frustrated and better able to meet their child’s needs—as children learn to tell parents what they need and how parental actions make them feel, rather than “acting out” complicated feelings.
My children use words or behaviors to effectively express their feelings and needs.
What does social and emotional competence of children mean?
The ability of a child to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors in appropriate ways.
Program Strategies that work here:
- Discuss the importance of feelings and how they impact children
- Provide opportunities for children to practice self-regulation skills in informal settings
- Create programming that allows children to express themselves in creative ways (e.g., play, art)
- Encourage your child to use words to communicate when angry or frustrated
- Seek support with challenging behaviors to reduce stress for the family
- Identify a trusted resource for information and support about normal behavior for your child
Early work in protective factors focused on early childhood, but over time, work has expanded to understand the impact of protective factors over the lifespan and how they can be built in individuals, families, and communities. The research and efforts across the spectrum continue to expand and develop.
There are many organizations engaged in this work, but the ones that most closely relate to our work in child abuse prevention are Administration for Children, Youth, and Families; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy/ Strengthening Families. Let’s explore some of that work.
In 2012, ACYF undertook an effort to review the research in protective factors for relevant populations in order to provide a foundation for the development of a protective factors framework that could inform the work they were seeking to fund.
This work identified protective factors across three levels of the social ecology. These were the individual, the relationship level, and the community level. They identified the top 10 protective factors with the strongest evidence for ACYF populations. These factors were:
- Self-regulation skills
- Relational skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Involvement in positive activities
- Parenting competencies
- Positive peers
- Caring adults
- Positive community environment
- Positive school environment
- Economic opportunities
To learn more about this work and to read the full report and supporting information, visit https://dsgonline.com/protective-factors-framework-fro-acyf/
The Essentials for Childhood model builds on earlier work at the CDC in Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships (SSNRs). SSNRs were established to provide critical components in preventing child maltreatment and the Essentials work looks to build on that importance. It proposes strategies for communities to use to promote SSNRs that will help children grow up to be healthy and productive.
The goals for the Essentials for Childhood work include:
- Raising awareness and commitments to promote safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments and prevent child maltreatment
- Using data to inform actions
- Creating a context for healthy children and families through norms change and programs
- Creating a context for healthy children and families through policies
To learn more about this work and to fully explore SSNRs and the Essentials for Childhood Initiative, please visit https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/essentials.html.
The Strengthening Families framework was developed several years ago for children aged 0-5 receiving services from child care facilities. That work identified five protective factors:
- Parental resilience
- Social connections
- Knowledge of parenting and child development
- Concrete support in times of need
- Social-emotional competence of children
To learn more about the Strengthening Families framework, visit http://www.cssp.org/reform/strengthening-families.
Focusing on families’ strengths and promoting protective factors is essential for minimizing the likelihood of children being exposed to maltreatment or neglect.
Research on characteristics of family functioning have highlighted the ways in which family structure, organization, cohesion, conflict management, and communication can lead to improved parenting quality (Gaudin et al., 1996). Further research shows that parent education programs are effective at improving family functioning, thus reducing the risk of child maltreatment (Geeraert, Noortgate, Grietens, & Onghena, 2004).
The influence of families’ extended social network and access to social and emotional support has also been shown to have a protective influence against parenting stress, which in turn buffers against child maltreatment. In particular, social networks, including family and non-family support, benefit families by providing parents with information on appropriate childrearing methods (Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983; Moncher, 1995), moderating maladaptive parenting and stresses (Voight, Hans, & Bernstein, 1996), and supporting positive environments for infants and children.
Concrete supports that protect against the likelihood of child maltreatment are distinct in that parents experiencing financial difficulties suffer from elevated levels of depression, and in turn, lower psychological functioning (Jackson, Brooks-Gunn, Chien-Chung, & Glassman, 2000). Both of these factors contribute to parenting stress, which increases the likelihood of inconsistent and punitive discipline (McLoyd, 1998). These elements contribute to less than ideal home environments and elevated parenting stress, which both increase the likelihood of inconsistent, coercive, and punitive discipline (Cole & Cole, 1993; McLoyd, 1998). Having concrete support can help moderate financial stress, and ultimately lower the risk of child abuse (Cochran & Niego, 1995), demonstrating that access to concrete supports serves as a protection against the perpetration of child maltreatment.
Healthy parent-child relationships are reflected in nurturing and attachment factors that develop and strengthen the bonds between the child and caregivers. Research shows that maltreated children have lower quality attachment than non-maltreated children, and exhibit higher rates of aggression, and lower social competency and empathy (Crittenden, 1988; George & Main, 1979; Morton & Browne, 1998; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2004). In an effort to promote the protective aspect of healthy nurturing and attachment, prevention programs focusing on home visitation include strategies to help strengthen early parent-child relationships, which are effective in promoting parent-child bonding (Olds et al., 2002).
Having knowledge of appropriate parenting skills and an awareness of child development are similarly protective against a risk of abuse. Parents who participate in parenting education programs are linked with positive outcomes such as improved emotional well-being, more realistic expectations for children, and increased skills to communicate and interact with children, as well as changed parental beliefs about corporal punishment being an effective discipline technique (Geeraert et al., 2004; Lundahl, Nimer, & Parsons, 2006; MacLeod & Nelson, 2000; Repucci, Britner, & Woolard, 1997). Programs that focus on stress management and increasing parent knowledge of child development may help develop healthier, more appropriate parenting skills that would minimize the risk of abuse (Kaminski, Valle, Filene, & Boyle, 2008).
Efforts to prevent child maltreatment and neglect benefit from an applied protective factors framework, which allows programs to focus specifically on those factors that can be changed. For example, programs can reasonably expect changes in parental behaviors and attitudes as a result of parent education or home visitation. Risk factors such as low maternal age or significant reductions in neighborhood crime rates, on the other hand, are not as easily addressed by programs, nor are they as easily changed by program interventions (Ross & Vandivere, 2009). By looking at protective factors, we are able to extend the focus of prevention, since early care and education programs may not be familiar with addressing risks (Langford & Harper-Browne, in press).
While there are several instruments available that address individual protective factors, no single instrument had been developed to address multiple protective factors against child maltreatment that can be addressed by prevention programs. The Protective Factors Survey (PFS) was developed to address this need.
- As the field evolves so does our ability to evaluate it. FRIENDS, in partnership with the Center for Public Partnerships and Research at the University of Kansas developed the Protective Factors Survey (PFS) to help programs understand their effectiveness in improving certain protective factors through a reliable and valid pre-post survey model. The survey is listed on the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse as an evidence-based tool.
The primary purpose of the Survey is to provide feedback to agencies for continuous improvement and evaluation purposes. The survey results are designed to provide agencies with:
- A snapshot of the families they serve;
- Changes in protective factors; and;
- Areas where program staff can focus on increasing individual family protective factors.;
The Protective Factors Survey was not designed or tested as a tool for making clinical diagnoses for individual participants. Neither was it designed to make decisions regarding out-of-home placements or legal adjudications. But the Survey will help ensure effectiveness in building the protective factors and promoting resilience among the children and families you serve.
To learn more about the PFS, click here.
- In addition, FRIENDS has a compendium of annotated evaluation tools that have been examined for surface validity on measuring particular protective factors. This compendium includes a listing of over 70 tools that apply to various aspects of child abuse prevention programming and it addresses various areas for each tool including cost, environment, education level needed, support, and others. To explore the compendium, click here.
- The Center for the Study of Social Policy in its Strengthening Families Approach has developed several tools that help programs analyze their work in protective factors. These resources include program assessments and a variety of other tools.
Visit http://www.cssp.org/reform/strengtheningfamilies to learn more.
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Cochran, M., & Niego, S. (1995). Parenting and social networks. In M. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting (pp. 393–418). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cole, M., & Cole, S.R. (1993). The development of children. New York: Scientific American Books.
Counts, J.M., Buffington, E.S., Chang-Rios, K., Rasmussen, H.N., & Preacher, K.J. (2010). The development and validation of the protective factors survey: A self-report measure of protective factors against child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 762-772.
Crittenden, P.M. (1988). Relationships at risk. In J. Belsky, & T. Nezworski (Eds.), Clinical implications of attachment (pp. 136–174). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gaudin, J.M., Polansky, N.A., Kilpatrick, A.C., & Shilton, P. (1996). Family functioning in neglectful families. Child Abuse & Neglect, 20, 363–377.
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George, C., & Main, M. (1979). Social interactions of young abused children: Approach, avoidance, and aggression. Child Development, 50, 306–318.
Jackson, A., Brooks-Gunn, J., Chien-Chung, H., & Glassman, M. (2000). Single mothers in low-wage jobs: Financial strain, parenting, and preschoolers’ outcomes. Child Development, 71(5), 1409–1423.
Kaminski, J.W., Valle, L.A., Filene, J.H., & Boyle, C.L. (2008). A meta-analytic review of components associated with parent training program effectiveness. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36(4), 567–589.
Langford, J., & Harper-Browne, C. (in press). Strengthening families through early care and education: Engaging families in familiar places to prevent child maltreatment.
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Olds, D.L., Robinson, J., O’Brien, R., Luckey, D.W., Pettitt, L.M., Henderson, C.R., Jr., Ng, R.K., Sheff, K.L., Korfmacher, J., Hiatt, S., & Talmi, A. (2002). Home visiting by paraprofessionals and by nurses: A randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 110, 486–496.
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