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Protective Factors and Risk Factors During Childhood

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Protective factors are defined as characteristics of the child, family, and wider environment that reduce the negative effect of adversity on child outcome (Masten and Reed 2002). For protective factors to come into play it is important to understand risk factors. Risk factors refer to the stressful conditions, events, or circumstances (e.g., maternal depression, substance abuse, family violence, persistent poverty) that increase a family’s chances for poor outcomes, including child abuse and neglect. With this in mind protective factors can also be described as conditions or attributes of individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that mitigate risk and promote healthy development and well being. Protective factors decrease the chance of a child experiencing mental health difficulties, and serve to protect children when they are exposed to risk. The more protective factors there are in a child’s life, the lower the chances of them developing difficulties.

Protective factors within a child include: an easygoing temperament, positive expectations of themselves and the future, a sense of independence, good communication, problem-solving and social skills, express and manage their behaviour and emotions and an ability to develop positive and lasting relationships with friends and family. Having support from a wide circle of family, friends and community members enables children to be protected from the possible negative effects of events such as: Loss of a pet, death of a family member or experiencing family separation. From time to time, children will show behaviour that suggests the presence of a child’s internal risk factors, which may be a part of their temperament or personality. Some examples of these behaviours include: withdrawing from or avoiding new situations, being irritable or aggressive, not being able to follow rules or instructions, and having difficulty understanding or using language. Building on a child’s internal protective factors, such as them achieving developmental milestones and a positive sense of self, can help them develop resilience. Resilience has been defined as the maintenance of healthy / successful functioning or adaptation within the context of a significant adversity or threat. It has also been stated that protective factors are also “promotive” factors that build family strengths and a family environment that promotes optimal child and youth development.

During childhood, many children will experience specific events that can be considered risk factors which may influence their well-being. However, just because children are exposed to a risk factor does not mean they will develop mental health difficulties. As long as children are surrounded by caring and supportive adults, the impact of risk factors can be reduced. Some examples of specific risk factors are: Loss of or illness in a family member, friend or pet, separation of parents, change of preschool or moving house, being affected by natural disasters, being diagnosed with a disability or medical illness. When children are uncertain of their world they can become frightened and may respond in ways unexpected or out of character such as feeling anxious, clinging to their parents or carers, feeling angry or irritable, losing motivation, wetting the bed or sucking their thumb. When children are provided with a stable environment where they understand their daily routines, are supported and their emotions and behaviour can be monitored, they will have the best opportunities to overcome these challenging times. Children need lots of reassurance from caring adults to help them cope with major loss or change, If parents or carers are closed off or only give vague answers they may keep these feelings inside until they cannot manage them by themselves any more. Communication from caring adults supports children through change and distressing events. When children are raised in supportive environments (e.g., at home and at their early childhood service) that offer loving, safe, consistent care and support, children have the opportunity to develop close relationships. Close relationships with family and peers give children a sense of trust and are important for children’s positive mental health and well-being.

Reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors supports children’s resilience. When families and staff notice children’s feelings and behaviour and communicate openly with one another, they can effectively support children’s well-being (e.g., identify and address children’s areas of risk, such as difficulties with social or emotional development). Many people experience changes for reasons that cannot be controlled; this means there are some aspects of children’s lives where risk factors cannot be addressed. In this situation, increasing both internal protective factors (such as a child’s positive coping skills) and external protective factors (such as a supportive environment) is beneficial. Together, these can help reduce the number of changes in a child’s life and help them feel secure. Children can feel reassured by knowing that a responsive adult is taking care of them and is looking after their needs which by extension helps to reduce the stress and disruption in their life.

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