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Adolescent Health Risks and Protective Factors

Experimenting and risk-taking are part of adolescent life and play a role in adolescent development. Taking risks helps adolescents establish their identities and learn from their successes as well as their failures. Adults can help adolescents by encouraging them to take the positive steps that strengthen them and lessen chances for negative behavior.

Positive Risks and Protective Factors

There are many positive risks teens can take. Playing sports, trying a new activity, volunteering or working, taking a harder class at school, or making new friends are all examples of positive risk-taking and are usually a healthy part of growing up.

Teens who are engaged in learning and in meaningful activities; who have a good self-concept and have control of their emotions; who live in stable situations; and who are healthy and safe benefit from protective factors in their lives, which help them learn and grow.

Negative Risks

Then there are negative risk factors such as alcohol and drug use, unsafe driving, violence, sex, and depression which leave parents worried and communities troubled. Indeed, studies suggest that half of all behavioral risks first appear during adolescence.

The good news is that about half of high school students reported engaging in very few risky behaviors (none or one) during the prior year. Of concern is that nearly one in four (24%) reported engaging in four or five risky behaviors during that time period.

Number of risky behaviors among adolescents: 0-1 risk behaviors: 49%; 2 risk behaviors: 15%; 3 risk behaviors: 12%; 4 risk behaviors: 9%; 5+ risk behaviors: 15%

Table 1: Risky Behaviors Among Adolescents

Table 1: Risky Behaviors Among Adolescents
Behavior Percentage of Adolescents
0 to 1 risk behaviors 49%
2 risk behaviors 15%
3 risk behaviors 12%
4 risk behaviors 9%
5 or more risk behaviors 15%

Figuring out which teens are engaging in negative risks is complex. The challenge is to figure out which adolescent is experimenting with a risky behavior and which ones are engaged in serious risk-taking that has the potential to harm their health and well-being. A teen with many risks may be one who needs additional attention from caring professionals, and who may benefit from behavioral counseling and coordinated follow-up services.

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Protective Factors

Personal

  • Ability to control one’s emotions
  • Positive self-concept
  • Good coping and problem-solving skills
  • Engaging in learning
  • Social skills
  • Healthy physical development free from disease and injury
  • Feeling connected and engaged with at least two areas outside of family: school, positive peers, athletics, employment, religion or culture or the arts

Family

  • Stability and predictability
  • Rules, limits, monitoring, structure (age appropriate)
  • Supportive relationships with family members
  • Clear expectations for behavior and values

School and Community

  • Mentoring and support for development of skills and interests
  • Opportunities for engagement within school and community
  • Positive norms
  • Clear expectations for behavior (similar to above stability and predictability in families)
  • Physical and psychological safety (free from violence and bullying)

Adolescent Health: Think, Act, Grow® and the logo design are registered trademarks of HHS.

Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on October 28, 2016