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Chapter 4:
Risk Factors for Youth Violence

Introduction to Risk and Protective Factors

Risk Factors in Childhood

Risk Factors in Adolescence

Proposed Protective Factors in Childhood and Adolescence



Appendix 4-A: Lipsey and Derzon’s Classes of Risk Factors

Appendix 4-B: Violence in the Media and Its Effect on Youth Violence

Media Violence: Exposure and Content

Major Behavioral Effects of Media Violence

Summary of Major Empirical Research Findings

Preventive Efforts



Chapter 4


Research on resilience and the public health approach to the problem of youth violence have brought a new awareness of, and research on, protective factors—those aspects of the individual and his or her environment that buffer or moderate the effect of risk. Identifying and understanding how protective factors operate is potentially as important to violence prevention and intervention efforts as research on risk factors.

To date, the evidence regarding protective factors against violence has not met the standards established for risk factors. Therefore, this report does not refer to protective factors, only to proposed protective factors (Table 4-2). There are several reasons for this: Not all studies define protective factors as buffering the effects of risk; most studies have looked for an effect on antisocial behavior in general, not on violence specifically; and those that have found buffering effects on violence have not been adequately replicated. This does not mean that protective factors do not exist, just that more research is needed to identify them.7

Most studies of protective factors do not specify when in the course of development these factors exert their buffering effects or how they change over the life course. Further study is needed to clarify these points; therefore, Table 4-2 does not show age of onset for the proposed protective factors listed.

A Note on Sources

The authors of a 1995 longitudinal study on protective factors and their buffering effects on the risk of problem behavior in adolescence (Jessor et al., 1995) recently reexamined their data to see whether they could find any buffering effect specifically on violence. They did find a buffering effect, but their results must be considered preliminary until they are replicated by others. Nonetheless, these findings are encouraging, since they indicate that several of the factors identified as protective against problem behavior also provided a buffering effect against violence. By implication, other studies that have demonstrated buffering effects on the risk of antisocial behavior or general delinquency (for example, Fergusson & Lynskey, 1996) may also contain evidence of potential protective factors against violence. The discussion of proposed protective factors in this report rests on the reanalysis of the 1995 study data (Turbin, 2000), as well as on results from other studies, bearing in mind the caveats noted above.

Table 4-2. Proposed protective factors, evidence of buffering risk, and outcome affected, by domain

Table 4-2. Proposed protective factors, evidence of buffering risk, and outcome affected, by domain

Table 4-2. (Click to enlarge)

The 1995 Jessor study grouped possible protective factors together and found that students who scored high on this index of protection were buffered from the effects of risk, compared to students who scored low on the index. The index was composed of seven psychosocial protective factors: attitudinal intolerance of deviance, positive orientation to health, religiosity, positive relations with adults, perceived consequences for misbehavior, friends as models for conventional behaviors, and high involvement in conventional activities. In an analysis of specific factors, however, only two—an intolerant attitude toward deviance and commitment to school—had significant protective effects. The new findings show that the same two factors appear to exert a significant, though small, buffering effect on risk factors for violence.

Proposed Protective Factors by Domain

One of the proposed protective factors shown to have a buffering effect on the risk of violence is an individual characteristic, and the other falls into the domain of school; both are classed as having a small effect. No other factors in the individual, family, school, or peer group domains have been shown to exert significant buffering effects on risk factors for violence, although they have been shown to moderate the risk of antisocial behavior or delinquency. No protective factors have been proposed yet in the community domain.

An intolerant attitude toward deviance, including violent behavior, is the strongest proposed protective factor. It reflects a commitment to traditional values and norms as well as disapproval of activities that violate these norms. Young people whose attitudes are antithetical to violence are unlikely to become involved in activities that could lead to violence or to associate with peers who are delinquent or violent.

The four remaining individual factors have not yet been shown to moderate violence, although they may buffer risks for antisocial behavior or general delinquency. High IQ has been cited as a possible protective factor (Fergusson & Lynskey, 1996; Garmezy, 1985; Rutter, 1985; Werner & Smith, 1982). Children with above-average IQs may exhibit qualities, such as curiosity and creativity, that help them make the most of early educational, artistic, and cultural experiences. Above-average IQ can also help a child excel in school. High IQ may increase an adolescent’s chances of benefiting from educational, creative, and cultural opportunities. For youths facing multiple risk factors, exposure to the wider world may open a window on alternative values and lifestyles.

Being born female has also been cited (Garmezy, 1985; Rutter, 1985; Werner & Smith, 1982), but it is the opposite of being born male, a risk factor, and as yet there is no evidence of a buffering effect. Being a girl entails less exposure to violence, less impulsiveness and daring, and being expected to behave less aggressively than boys.

Some studies have proposed positive social orientation as a protective factor (Garmezy, 1985; Jessor et al., 1998; Rutter, 1985; Werner & Smith, 1982). Like commitment to school, a positive social orientation indicates that a young person has adopted traditional values and norms, a slightly different emphasis than intolerance of deviance. This proposed factor appears to be the opposite of antisocial attitudes and beliefs, a late-onset risk factor that has a small effect size.

Perceived sanctions for transgressions, a protective factor in the earlier Jessor study (1995), refers to perceived peer disapproval of deviant behavior. The reanalysis of those original data reveals that this proposed factor has no significant protective effect on risk of violence or problem behavior.

There is no doubt that an essential aspect of healthy child development is forming a secure attachment in infancy to a parent or other adult who senses and responds to a baby’s needs (Bell & Fink, 2000). Likewise, researchers agree that having a loving adult who is interested in and supportive of a child or young person’s ideas and activities helps that child or adolescent develop the confidence and competence needed to progress from one stage of development to the next. Good relations with an adult who supports conventional behavior and disapproves of delinquent behavior can provide invaluable guidance for young people. The question is whether these relationships moderate the effects of exposure to risk and thus fit the definition of a protective factor.

A warm, supportive relationship with parents or other adults has been shown to protect against antisocial behavior, but studies so far have not found a significant buffering effect on the risk of violence (Hawkins et al., 1998c; Klein & Forehand, 2000; Rutter, 1979; Turbin, 2000; Werner & Smith, 1992).

It is uncertain whether family protective factors, like family risk factors, become less influential as young people progress through adolescence. Parental support and encouragement remain important, but even parents who have had a good relationship with their children before puberty may affect their adolescents’ behavior only indirectly—for example, through choice of friends (Elliott et al., 1989). This indirect influence is not inconsequential, however; associating with peers who disapprove of violence may inhibit later violence in young people (Hawkins et al., 1998c), and parents’ positive evaluation of peers has been found to reduce the risk of delinquency (Smith et al., 1995).

Several studies have pointed to monitoring or supervision of activities as a protective factor against delinquency and antisocial behavior, but this is essentially the opposite of failure to monitor, an adolescent-onset risk factor with a small effect size. To date, no evidence of moderating effects on the risk of violence has been presented (Baldwin et al., 1990; Klein & Forehand, 2000; Smith et al., 1995).

Commitment to school is the second proposed protective factor that has been found to buffer the risk of youth violence. Young people who are committed to school have embraced the goals and values of an influential social institution. Such young people are unlikely to engage in violence, both because it is incompatible with their orientation and because it would jeopardize their achievement in school and their standing with adults (Jessor et al., 1995; Turbin, 2000). This proposed factor is included because it appears to buffer the risk of violence, not because it is the opposite of poor attitude toward or performance in school, a risk factor with small effect sizes in both childhood and adolescence.

School can give adolescents who face multiple risk factors a place in which to excel socially and academically. Achievement in school and the approval of teachers provide the recognition so important to adolescent development—recognition some adolescents do not receive from other sources. Encouragement from teachers can give young people the confidence to seek continued educational or job skills training. In addition, schools with peer groups that value academic achievement may lower students’ risk of becoming involved in violence (Felson et al., 1994). Unfortunately, schools with a culture of violence may be unable to exert their very important protective function.

Extracurricular activities in art, music, drama, school publications, and the like give adolescents an opportunity to participate in constructive group activities and achieve recognition for their efforts. Studies have found that recognition for or involvement in conventional activities—whether family, school, extracurricular, religious, or community—is a protective factor against antisocial behavior (Jessor et al., 1995; Rae-Grant et al., 1989). The reanalysis of the Jessor data shows that involvement in family, volunteer, and school club activities other than sports has an insignificant effect on risk for violence (Turbin, 2000).

Peer Group
Having friends who behave conventionally is a proposed protective factor that seems to reduce the risk of delinquency, but there is no evidence of a true buffering effect on specific risk factors. Buffering effects on violence were not significant in the reanalysis of the Jessor data (Turbin, 2000; see also Smith et al., 1995). However, as noted earlier, researchers have found that associating with peers who disapprove of violence may inhibit violence in young people (Hawkins et al., 1998c; Jessor et al., 1995).


Although the body of research on protective factors is growing, very little work has been done specifically on protective factors that buffer the risk of violence. Some researchers have identified individual and environmental characteristics that can be considered candidates for protective factors. Lacking adequate scientific evidence of the nature, mechanism, size, and timing of these candidates’ moderating effects, however, this report considers all of them proposed protective factors.

One recent reanalysis of earlier data has found two proposed protective factors that seem to buffer the risk of violence—an intolerant attitude toward deviance and commitment to school. These two factors appear to exert a statistically significant, though small, buffering effect on the risk of violence, but until these findings are replicated, they must be considered preliminary.

Identifying and understanding how protective factors operate is as important to preventing and stopping violence as identifying and understanding risk factors. This area of the public health approach to youth violence cries out for more research.



There is a fairly extensive body of research on protective factors in the field of psychopathology (Garmezy, 1985; Rae-Grant et al., 1989; Rolf et al., 1993; Rutter, 1979, 1985; Rutter et al., 1979; Stattin et al., 1997; Werner and Smith, 1982, 1992). There are also a number of studies focusing on delinquency that purport to identify protective factors (Brewer et al., 1995; Farrington and West, 1993; Hawkins et al., 1992; Resnick et al., 1997; Smith et al., 1995).

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