'Risk factor' is a term used by researchers to describe something in a child or adolescent's life that has been shown to be associated with the development of later adjustment problems. For example, adolescent substance abuse is a risk factor for a range of problems during adulthood. On the other hand, 'protective factors' are factors that have been shown to decrease the likelihood of a negative outcome. Although risk factors are not the primary focus of resiliency-oriented programs, an understanding of the factors that place children at risk of developing mental health issues or other problems is important for several reasons. Resiliency is meaningless in the absence of adversity, and therefore our understanding of resiliency cannot be complete until we understand risk. Also, an understanding of risk can provide pointers to possible protective factors. Many protective factors are simply the reverse of a risk factor. For example, positive, supportive relationships are a protective factor against depression, whereas social isolation is a risk factor. Another reason to understand risk factors relates to the targeting of programs. Although all children can benefit from the skills that underpin resiliency, it is clear that targeting programs towards those who are at risk is the most effective way to use limited resources.
Risk factors are accumulative in nature. The risk of poor life outcomes rises sharply as the number of risk factors increases. In fact, an interesting finding of the research is that the specific nature of any particular risk factor experienced by a child is less important than the number of risk factors present. Protective factors also have a cumulative effect. The likelihood of positive or negative life outcomes for a child is therefore a function of the balance of risk and protective factors.
Of course, risk factors for various problems are likely to vary to some extent. For example, the risk factors for depression are likely to be different from the risk factors for violence. Nevertheless, some generic risk factors which are common to many types of adjustment problems and mental disorders have been identified. These generic risk factors include:
Innumerable studies have shown the detrimental effects of economic deprivation and low socioeconomic status. It has been pointed out that social and economic disadvantage is in fact not a single risk factor, but a complex set of inter-relating factors, which include physical health issues, educational opportunities, problematic aspects of the physical and social environment (for example, family overcrowding, neighbourhood gangs), and other complex factors.
Risks for a wide range of emotional and mental difficulties are higher amongst children exposed to an impaired parenting or child-rearing. This includes exposure to neglect and inconsistent care, sexual, emotional and/or physical abuse, inconsistent discipline and poor supervision. Admission into foster care - usually related to other risk factors - has also been identified as a risk factor for many problems.
This includes exposure to parental divorce or separation, high levels of family discord and domestic violence.
Children of parents with significant mental health and adjustment problems, including substance abuse disorders, criminality and psychiatric disorders, are at higher risk of developing problems than other children.
A range of organic and genetic factors have been frequently associated with higher risk for various problems. These include:
Gender. Males tend to be more at risk than females.
Poor physical health.
Below average intelligence.
"Difficult" temperament. (Studies show that approximately 10% of children are born with a 'difficult' temperament. These children tend to display irregular eating and sleeping patterns, frequent negative emotion and difficulty adapting to new situations.)
Heritability. There is a genetic pre-disposition to many mental disorders.
Low birthweight, foetal drug/alcohol effects and other neurological impairments.
Peers can have a significant influence on the development of a person, especially during adolescence when peer relationships assume great importance. Pro-social peer networks tend to function as a strong protective factor, whereas anti-social or substance-abusing peers can influence life choices in a negative direction.
Traumatic life events can disrupt the normal process of development, and sometimes result in long-term adjustment difficulties, especially if the impact on the child is not recognised or treated. Trauma can arise from a wide range of sources including war, terrorism, serious accidents, violent crime, natural disasters, political or racial persecution, death of a parent, and so on. As with other risk factors, multiple traumas multiply risk.
Christle, C., Harley, D., Nelson, C.M. & Jones, K. Promoting Resilience in Children: What Parents Can Do. Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice. Available at: cecp.air.org/familybriefs/docs/Resiliency1.pdf.
Fergusson, D. (1999). 'Risk, Resilience and Early Intervention'. Paper presented to Auseinet International Conference on Early Intervention, 1999. Available at: http://auseinet.flinders.edu.au/resources/auseinet/conf99/fergusson.pdf .
Vance, E. & Sanchez, H. (1998). Creating a Service System That Builds Resiliency. North Carolina Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services. Available at: http://www.dhhs.state.nc.us/mhddsas/childandfamily/technicalassistance/risk_and_resiliency.htm.