A risk factor is a factor that increases the likelihood of a future negative outcome for a child.

A protective factor buffers against the effects of risk factors decreasing the probability of a future negative outcome.

The way risk and protective factors interact to produce positive or negative outcomes at different stages of a child’s development is complex and not always clearly understood. While risk and protective factors are common to certain outcomes, the pattern of risk and protection will vary widely from child to child.

Research suggests that although children who experience more risk factors are at increased risk of problems, intervention to reduce the impact of risk factors and enhance protective factors can have an effect even in situations of significant risk. This means there is not a ‘point of no return’ where intervention can no longer have any positive effect.

Many risk and protective factors are often interrelated and linked with numerous child outcomes. Services and interventions should aim to address multiple risk and protective factors, rather than focus on any single factor.

The timing and nature of risk and protective factors within a child’s developmental pathway is an important consideration when providing services and interventions. For example, as evidence shows that maltreatment early in life increases children’s vulnerability to adjustment problems, providing preventive interventions as early as possible in a child’s life may be critical.

Services and interventions that address multiple domains of functioning, such as the child, family and community, rather than a single domain, potentially have a greater influence on child outcomes.Risk, protection and resilience will vary depending on the individual child and family and their unique situation. What is a risk or a protective factor for one child will not necessarily be the same for another.