Prevention Science: Risk and Protective Factors of Addiction

By Mary Cucarola – 1/11/18

“You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important.”  Aibileen Clark in The Help

Addiction is devastating millions of lives across our country.  How can we make a dent in this devastation?  One way is to start scaling up prevention for our youth.  I think about this issue every single day with my granddaughter, who is almost 11.  I’ve had the conversation with her about the disease of addiction and how her dad died, but she’s got a major risk factor – genetics.

Past drug education programs in the schools, such as the DARE program, have been tested and found to actually increase drug use among children exposed to these programs.  Since then, prevention science has evolved into something better.  The basic premise of effective prevention is to reduce the risk factors of addiction, while increasing the protective factors.

Risk factors are conditions that increase the likelihood of a person becoming involved in problem behavior or developing a disease or injury (e.g., smoking increases the chances of developing lung cancer).  

Children are influenced by their community, school, family, and friends.  Risk factors can be present across development – from prenatal to high school, predict multiple problems, such as substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and school dropout.  The following are some (not all) of the risk factors for adolescent problem behavior.


  • Availability of drugs & alcohol
  • Media portrayals of the behavior
  • Favorable parental attitudes and involvement in the problem behavior
  • Family conflict and management problems
  • Academic failure beginning in late elementary school
  • Lack of commitment to school
  • Early & persistent rebellious behavior
  • Friends who engage in the problem behavior
  • Early initiation of the problem behavior
  • Genetic and constitutional factors

Protective factors are conditions that buffer a person from exposure to risk by either reducing the impact of the risks or changing the way one responds to risks. 

Protective factors can increase the probability of healthy behaviors and success in kids, such as a resilient temperament, social interaction skills, and strong family bonds.  These protective factors can be organized into a social development strategy.  The following are some of the actions that can be taken to protect kids from problem behavior.


  • Provide young people with opportunities for involvement
  • Demonstrate the skills to be successful
  • Recognize them for their improvement, effort, and achievement
  • Create a bond to motivate them toward sustained healthy behavior
  • Implement clear standards for behavior
  • Have them examine their self-image
  • Teach them to cope with anxiety
  • Use assertiveness skills
  • Weigh consequences before making decisions

This makes so much sense to me, and I wish I would have been aware of this approach years ago.  I don’t know if it would have made a difference in my son’s addictive behavior, but I certainly recognize many of the risk factors present in his behavior.

Today, there are over 40 prevention programs that have been proven effective by leveraging knowledge about risk and protective factors.  One very effective school-based program, Botvin LifeSkills® Training (LST), raises awareness around the major social and psychological factors that lead students to substance use.  Rather than harping on the dangers of addiction, LST promotes healthy alternatives.

You can search these evidence-based programs by specific risk factors by using the program called Blueprints at  It provides a registry of evidence-based positive youth development programs designed to promote the health and well-being of children and teens. Blueprints programs are family, school, and community-based and target all levels of need — from broad prevention programs that promote positive behaviors while decreasing negative behaviors, to highly-targeted programs for at-risk children and troubled teens that get them back on track.

This is truly an incredible research tool for teachers, parents, administrators, counselors, community leaders, program designers, and so on.  Now, we have the research and many successful programs which prove that behavioral health problems, like the disease of addiction, have a chance of being prevented.

We need to implement these programs in all of our schools and keep the lines of communication open with our kids.  I know I will focus on the protective factors with my granddaughter, Olivia, and am glad I learned about prevention science in writing my first (head-guided) informative blog.

Mary Cucarola – 1/11/18


“35 Years of Prevention Science”.  Shatterproof.

“Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development”.  Blueprints.

“Prevention Programs for Schools”.  Shatterproof.



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