Risk and Protective Factors

There is no single known cause of child abuse and neglect; it occurs across all socioeconomic, religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic groups.  However, researchers have identified several factors that may contribute to maltreatment (risk factors) or help prevent it (protective factors).  These include environmental supports, such as family income and community organization, as well as personal characteristics, such as temperament, identity development, and genetic and neurobiological influences. 

A greater understanding of risk factors can help those working with children and families to identify maltreatment and high-risk situations and to intervene appropriately.  Additionally, addressing both risk and protective factors can help to prevent child abuse and neglect or its recurrence.  Prevention programs may focus on increasing social supports for families (thereby reducing the risk of social isolation), for example, or on providing parent education to improve parents' expectations that are age-appropriate for their children.

Risk Factors

Children in families and environments with risk factors have a higher likelihood of experiencing maltreatment, but that does not mean that these factors will always result in child abuse and neglect.  The factors that contribute to maltreatment in one family may not do so in another.  While researchers have noted a relationship between poverty and maltreatment, for example, most people living in poverty do not harm their children.  It is important to recognize the multiple, complex causes of the problem and to tailor assessments and interventions for children and their families to their specific needs and circumstances.

Risk factors can be grouped into four domains:

  • Parent or caregiver, including personality characteristics and psychological well-being, substance abuse, history of maltreatment, and age
  • Family, such as marital conflict, domestic violence, single parenthood and/or boyfriends in the home, financial stress, and social isolation
  • Child, such as age, development, and special needs
  • Environmental, including poverty, unemployment, and community characteristics including, for example, violent neighborhoods

Protective Factors

Protective factors are those that may help protect families from vulnerabilities and help promote resilience.  These include:

  • Nurturing and attachment (developing a bond with a caring adult)
  • Knowledge of parenting and child development (understanding how children grow and develop)
  • Parental resilience (having the ability to handle everyday stressors and recover from occasional crises)
  • Social connections (having trusted and caring family and friends who provide emotional support)
  • Concrete support for parents (accessing basic resources, such as food, clothing, housing, transportation; services that address family-specific needs, such as child care and health care; and social services, such as for mental health and substance abuse treatment or domestic violence)
  • Social and emotional competence of children (having the right tools for healthy emotional expression)
For more information on these factors and how child welfare agencies and others can promote them in families, see the 2012 Resource Guide: Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action.