Family-Based Risk and Protective Factors and their Effects on Juvenile Delinquency: What Do We Know?

Available scientific knowledge indicates that, depending on context and circumstances, families can be both a risk factor and a protective factor for juvenile delinquency.Footnote 1

Risk factors

Some of the risk factors associated with family are static, while others are dynamic. Static risk factors, such as criminal history, parental mental health problems or a history of childhood abuse, are unlikely to change over time. However, dynamic risk factors, such as poor parental behaviour, family violence or parental drug addiction, can be modified through appropriate prevention and treatment programs.

Risk factors have a cumulative and interactive effect: a family exposed to several risk factors is considered a high-risk family. Furthermore, children and adolescents exposed to several risk factors will also be considered at high risk of embarking on a life path that will lead to delinquent behaviour.Footnote 2 This is because not only do the effects of risk factors accumulate, but the factors also interact with each other: the effects of one multiply the effects of another and so on. For example, parental alcoholism causes family conflicts, which then increase the risks of substance abuse.

Risk factors associated with family dynamic and functioning

Ineffective parental behaviour

Parental criminality

Mistreatment during childhood and family violence

Parental substance abuse

Risk factors associated with family characteristics

Risk factors associated with area of residence

Table 1 - Juvenile delinquency risk factors associated with family according to age of children and adolescents

Cumulative and interactive effects of risk factors
  6-12 years 13-17 years 18 and older
Family dynamic and functioning
  • Poor parental practices
  • Parental and/or sibling criminality
  • Anti-social parents with attitudes that support violence
  • Family conflicts
  • Parents with substance abuse problems
  • Physical abuse and neglect
  • Family violence
  • Poor parental practices
  • Parental and/or sibling criminality
  • Family violence
  • History of poor treatment
Family characteristics
  • Unstable family income
  • Broken home
  • Family mobility
  • Mental health of parents
  • Young mother
  • Number of children in the family
  • Single parent family
  • Parental past
  • Unstable family income
  • Broken home
  • Family mobility
  • Unstable family income
Area of residence
  • Poor area
  • Presence of young offenders
  • Poor area
  • Crime in the area
  • Presence of youth gangs
  • Availability of drugs and firearms
  • Poverty
  • Crime
  • Youth gangs
  • Drugs and firearms

Protective factors

Protective factors help us to better understand the characteristics and situations that protect and distance youth from delinquent behaviour.Footnote 26 Protective factors are characteristics or conditions that act as risk moderators, i.e., they help reduce the negative effects associated with risk factors and help youth better handle their situation.Footnote 27

Protective factors are cumulative and interactive. However, they are not necessarily always the opposite of risk factors; for example, growing up in a poor area can be attenuated by parental involvement, participation and support.Footnote 28

Table 2 illustrates the protective factors associated with family;Footnote 29 some examples are listed below.

Table 2 - Protective factors associated with family

At every ageFootnote 33
Family dynamic and functioning Family characteristics Area of residence
  • Relationship based on family bond
  • Positive support within the family
  • Adequate parental supervision
  • Respect for friends by parents
  • Closeness between parents and children (affection)
  • Consistent disciplinary methods
  • Adequate parental behaviour and practices
  • Parental level of education
  • Financial stability
  • Stability of the family unit
  • Integration of families into the life of the community
  • Relationships established with neighbours
  • School activities involving the family


Families that present risk factors for juvenile delinquency must be considered as a complex reality, influenced by various risk factors. The concept of the "at-risk" family must be understood as a whole. Furthermore, we must not forget that family is at the crossroads of many other areas of influence: circle of friends, school and the community.

Families play a key role in the development of children and adolescents. It is therefore important to address those who are at risk by focusing on protective factors and offering training to parents and youth, family therapy, integrated treatment plans or other effective strategies to prevent and reduce juvenile delinquency.Footnote 34



  1. 1McVie and Holmes, 2005; Welsh and Farrington, 2007; Leblanc, 1999; Lacourse et al., 2006; Thornberry, Huizinga, and Loeber, 2004; Wyrick and Howell, 2004; Farrington et al., 2006; Loeber, Farrington and Petechuk, 2003; Hoeve et al., 2007; Claes et al., 2005; Shader, 2003; Wasserman and Seracini, 2001; Wasserman et al., 2003; Éthier et al., 2006; Éthier et al., 2007.
  2. 2The duration of exposure to risk factors and the nature of the factors are also variables that must be considered in order to understand the links between risk factors, family and delinquency (Wasserman et al., 2003); see also Schonert-Reichl, 2000.
  3. 3In general, supervision refers to the control parents exert over their children's comings and goings, social network, homework, pastimes, knowing whether they smoke or use drugs (Mucchielli, 2001).
  4. 4Claes et al., 2005 ; Lacourse et al., 2006.
  5. 5Smith, 2004; McVie and Holmes, 2005
  6. 6See Claes et al. 2005; Dornbush and Wood, 1989.
  7. 7Claes et al., 2005; Lacourse et al., 2006. See also Phelan et al., 2004; Hill et al., 1999; Le Blanc and Lanctot, 1998; Thornberry, 1998; Thornberry et al., 2003.
  8. 8Hoeve et al., 2007
  9. 9Savoie, 2007
  10. 10Loeber et al., 1998
  11. 11Farrington, 2006; see also Farrington et al. 1996; 2001; 2002.
  12. 12Farrington, 2002; Farrington et al. 2006
  13. 13This fact is supported by several other researchers (notably CCSJ, 2006; Carlson, 1991; Dauvergne and Johnson, 2001; Hotton, 2003; Jaffe et al., 1986; Ristock 1995; Rodgers, 1994; Health Canada, 1997; Health Canada, 2004; Widom and Maxfield, 2001) in Hotton, 2003.
  14. 14McVie and Holmes, 2005
  15. 15Ibid
  16. 16Hotton and Haans, 2004
  17. 17See notably Mucchielli, 2000; Smith, 2004
  18. 18Farrington et al., 2006
  19. 19"Family transitions" refers to a group of events associated with change: for example, in terms of the family structure (divorce, re-marriage) or family mobility (moving). As the researchers have pointed out, these results must be considered in the context of prevention programs: youth who are undergoing family transitions are more likely to have trouble handling their emotions; therefore, one of the solutions is to improve their skills and ability to control them. (Thornberry, T. et al., 1999).
  20. 20Ibid
  21. 21Ibid
  22. 22Sampson, 1997
  23. 23Smith, 2004
  24. 24Sampson in Turner et al., 2007
  25. 25Turner et al., 2007; See also Larzelere and Patterson, 1990.
  26. 26Garmezy, 1985; Rutter, 1985; Werner and Smith, 1982; 1992
  27. 27Shader, 2003; Lawrence, et al., 2001
  28. 28Ibid
  29. 29Slee P., 2006; Claes et al., 2005; Lawrence, 2001; Smith, 2004; Mucchielli, 2000; Barbara et al., 2001; Herman et al., 1997; Allen and Land, 1998; Kobak and Sceery, 1984; Rice, 1990.
  30. 30Claes et al., 2005; See also Barbara et al., 2001; Herman et al.., 1997
  31. 31Claes et al., 2005; See also Allen & Land, 1998; Kobak and Sceery, 1984; Rice, 1990
  32. 32Mucchielli, 2000; Sampson et al., 1997; Slee, 2006;
  33. 33Current research on protective factors is not detailed enough to allow us to distinguish them based on age.
  34. 34See the research report by Savignac, Julie. Families, Youth and Delinquency: the State of Knowledge, and Family-Based Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Programs. Available in English and in French. Ottawa: Public Safety Canada, National Crime Prevention Centre, 2008.
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