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Risk Factors

What is a Risk Factor?

A "risk factor" is simply a condition that increases the risk of a young person becoming involved in one or more of the problem behaviors in adolescence.


Community Risk Factors

Availability of Drugs

The more available alcohol and other drugs are in a community, the higher the risk of young people abusing drugs in that community. Perceived availability of drugs is also associated with increased risk.  In schools where children just think that drugs are more available, a higher rate of drug abuse occurs.


Availability of Firearms

Research has shown an increase in the availability of firearms since the 1950’s.  There has been a corresponding increase in the number of crimes, including homicides, committed by adolescents.  


Community Laws and Norms Favorable Toward Problem Behaviors

Community norms – the attitudes and policies a community holds in relation to the problem behaviors – are communicated in a variety of ways; through laws and written policies, informal social practices, and through the expectations parents and other members of the community have of children.


Media Portrayals of Violence

Research over the last three decades shows a clear correlation between medial portrayals of violence and the development of aggressive and violent behavior in youth.


Transitions and Mobility

Even normal transitions can predict increases in problem behaviors.  When children move from elementary school to middle school or junior high, significant increases in problem behaviors may occur.  Communities characterized by high rates of mobility appear to be linked to an increased risk of problem behaviors.


Low Neighborhood Attachment and Community Disorganization

Where there is little attachment to the community, where the rates of vandalism are high, and where there is low surveillance of public places, more problem behaviors occur.  This condition is not limited to low income neighborhoods; it can also be found in more affluent areas.  The primary consideration here is whether or not people feel they are capable of making a change in their lives.


Extreme Economic Deprivation

Children who live in deteriorating, crime-ridden neighborhoods where there is little hope for a better future are more likely to become engaged in problem behaviors.  Also, children who have behavior and other adjustment problems early in life, and who come from economically deprived areas, are more likely to become involved in problem behaviors later on.


 Family Risk Factors

Family History of the Problem Behavior

This risk factor applies to both male and female children, and for both there appears to be an environmental as well as a genetic component.  The risk of alcoholism, for instance, appears to be twofold for children born into an alcoholic family.


Family Management Problems

Poor family management practices include a lack of clear expectations for behavior, failure of parents to monitor their children, and excessively severe or inconsistent punishment.


Family Conflict

Persistent, serious conflict between caregivers or between caregivers and children appears to increase risks for children raised in these families. Conflict between family members appears to be more important than the family structure.


Favorable Parental Attitudes and Involvement in Problem Behavior

If parents are involved in one of the problem behaviors or are tolerant of the children’s involvement in such behaviors, children are much more likely to become involved in those behaviors.  The risk is further increased if the parent involves the child in their behavior; i.e. asking a child to light a cigarette or get a beer from the refrigerator.


School Risk Factors

Academic Failure Beginning in Late Elementary School

This increases the risk in all five problem behaviors.  It appears that the experience of failure – not necessarily ability – increases the risk of problem behavior.


Lack of Commitment to School

This refers to the young person who has ceased to see the role of student as a visible one.


Individual/Peer Risk Factors

Early and Persistent Antisocial Behavior

Boys who are aggressive in grades K-3 or who have trouble controlling impulses are at higher risk for alcohol and other drug use, delinquency, and violent behavior.  When a boy’s aggressive behavior in the early grades is combined with isolation, withdrawal, hyperactivity, or attention deficit disorder, there is an even greater risk of problems in adolescence.  This risk factor also includes persistent antisocial behavior in early adolescence, such as misbehaving in school and getting into fights with other children. Both boys and girls who engage in these behaviors in early adolescence are at increased risk for all five problem behaviors.  This problem behavior used to be listed in the school domain, but was moved to this domain because, while some studies relied partially on school reporting to measure early antisocial behavior, most studies describe antisocial behavior as a range of behaviors that could occur either in or out of school.



Young people who feel they are not part of society, are not bound by rules, don’t believe in trying to be successful or responsible, or who take an actively rebellious stance toward society are at greater risk.  


Friends who Engage in the Problem Behavior (delinquent friends)

This is one of the most consistent predictors research has found. Young people who associate with peers who engage in problem behaviors are much more likely to engage in that behavior.


Gang Involvement

Recent research suggests that children who have delinquent friends are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs, and to engage in violent or delinquent behavior than children who do not have delinquent friends.  But the influence of gang involvement on alcohol and other drug use, delinquency, and violence exceeds the influence of delinquent friends on these problem behaviors.  Gang members are even more likely than children who have delinquent friends to use alcohol and other drugs, and to engage in delinquent or violent behavior.


Favorable Attitudes Toward the Problem Behavior

In elementary school, kids express anti-drug, anti-crime, pro-social attitudes. In middle school, as others they know participate in such activities, their attitudes often shift toward greater acceptance of these behaviors.


Early Initiation of the Problem Behavior

The earlier a problem begins, the more easily it becomes entrenched, and the more difficult it becomes to resolve.  For example, research shows that any use of alcohol before the age of 15 places that youngster at twice the risk of having drug problems as those who wait until after the age of 19.


Constitutional Factors

These factors may have a physiological or biological base, i.e. fetal alcohol effects, head trauma, attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, etc.  These factors are often seen in young people with sensation seeking, risk-taking behaviors and a lack of impulse control.

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