Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect

Risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect

CFCA Resource Sheet— March 2013

This paper provides an overview of the risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect. It is important that practitioners and policy-makers working with children and families operate from a broad understanding of these risk and protective factors and the ways in which they interact.

This document is for information purposes only and should not be used as a risk assessment tool in child protection practice. For more information on risk assessment in child protection see Risk Assessment in Child Protection

Why discuss risk and protective factors?

Understanding the risk and protective factors for child abuse and neglect1 is important for developing effective prevention interventions for vulnerable families. Although child protection authorities use specific risk assessment instruments to determine if a child is at risk of maltreatment, it is beneficial for all professionals who work with families to have a broad, general understanding of the factors that may place children at risk of harm, the factors that can protect them from harm, and the ways in which these risk and protective factors tend to interact.

It is essential to keep in mind that while certain risk factors may exist among families where child abuse and neglect occurs, this does not mean that the presence of these factors necessarily leads to child abuse and neglect (Goldman, Salus, Wolcott, & Kennedy, 2003). In other words, the presence of one or more risk factors does not necessarily result in child abuse and neglect, just as the presence of protective factors does not guarantee that children will be kept safe. For instance, one risk factor identified in Table 1 is large family size. This should never be interpreted as meaning that all children in large families are at high risk of being subjected to maltreatment. It simply means that at the population level there is a statistical association between family size and child maltreatment. Child maltreatment occurs in a minority of families, and most people, even those experiencing many risk factors, do not abuse or neglect their children. Indeed, substantiated cases of child maltreatment can also occur in families that experience none of the commonly associated risk factors (Ronan, Canoy, & Burke, 2009).


  • Risk factors for child maltreatment are defined as "measureable characteristic[s] of an individual that heightens the probability of a worse outcome in the future" (Masten & Wright, 1998, p. 9). When combined with limited protective factors, they increase the probability of children experiencing child abuse or neglect.
  • Protective factors have been defined as "a correlate of resilience that may reflect preventive or ameliorative influences: a positive moderator of risk or adversity" (Masten & Wright, 1998, p. 10). They serve as safeguards, which can help parents find resources or supports, and can encourage coping strategies that allow them to parent effectively, even under difficult circumstances.
  • Child abuse and neglect (or child maltreatment) consists of any acts of commission or omission by a parent, caregiver or other adult that results in harm, potential for harm, or the threat of harm to a child (0-18 years of age) even if the harm is unintentional (Gilbert et al., 2009). Child abuse and neglect can be in the form of: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and witnessing domestic violence. For more information on child maltreatment see: What is Child Abuse and Neglect?

The interaction of risk and protective factors

It is difficult to identify definitive causes of child abuse and neglect. However, researchers have used the "developmental-ecological" theoretical approach (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) to help describe and explain the way in which child, parental, familial, neighbourhood and wider social factors combine to increase or decrease a child's vulnerability to child abuse and neglect (e.g., Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer, & Higgins, 2006). The developmental-ecological model has four levels:

  • a) cultural beliefs and values (macrosystem);
  • b) neighbourhood and community settings (exosystem);
  • c) family environment (microsystem); and
  • d) the individual's own characteristics and developmental stage.

In the developmental-ecological model, child development is seen as a process in which child characteristics interact reciprocally with the environment over the course of life, meaning that children affect their environments as well as being influenced by them (Irenyi et al., 2006). Family is the most significant influence for a child, although other environmental influences, such as peers, the school environment and neighbourhood are also important for shaping children's development (Irenyi et al., 2006).

Child abuse and neglect is most likely to arise from the interaction of numerous risk factors (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Masten & Wright, 1998). For example, research has consistently associated child maltreatment with the co-occurrence of parental substance misuse and mental illness (i.e., dual diagnosis) or parental substance misuse with domestic violence (Bromfield, et al., 2010). There is also evidence that the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple risks strongly influences negative child outcomes and maltreatment (Begle, Dumas, & Hanson, 2010; MacKenzie, Kotch, & Lee, 2011). For instance, in a longitudinal study that followed mother-child dyads over the first 16 years of the child's life, researchers reported that at age 1, 4 and 16 years the best predictor of child maltreatment, above and beyond any individual risk factor, was the cumulative level of risk exposure (based on the number of exposure to different ecological risk factors) (MacKenzie et al., 2011).

Different risk factors may also have a larger impact on certain types of abuse and neglect. For instance, parents who were physically abused as children may be more likely to physically abuse their own children (Lamont, 2010; Pears & Capaldi, 2001), while child neglect may be more prominent in families headed by a parent with a mental illness (Cowling, 2004).

Common risk factors for child abuse and neglect

Both Australian and international research has identified a number of risk factors for child abuse and neglect. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide detailed evidence of all of these risk factors, or to discuss the extent to which specific risk factors relate to different forms of maltreatment (e.g., some risk factors may be associated with neglect, but not with sexual abuse, and vice versa). Therefore, the most common risk factors for child maltreatment in general are listed in Table 1, and are divided according to the ecological levels of the developmental-ecological model described above. (Factors relating to the macrosystem are not included as they may vary significantly between societies and cultures.)2

Table 1: Common risk factors for child abuse and neglect
Ecological level Risk factors

Individual child factors3

  • low birth weight
  • disability (physical/cognitive/emotional)
  • serious physical or mental illness
  • temperament
  • aggressive behaviour
  • attention deficits

Family/parental factors

  • parental substance abuse
  • involvement in criminal behaviour
  • family conflict or violence
  • mental health problems
  • physical health problems
  • history of child abuse and neglect
  • parental disability (physical/cognitive/emotional)
  • large family size
  • high parental stress
  • poor parent-child interaction
  • low warmth/harsh parenting style
  • separation/divorce
  • low self-esteem
  • teenage/young parent/s
  • single parent
  • non-biological parent/s in the home
  • low level of parental education
  • use of corporal punishment

Social/environment factors

  • socio-economic disadvantage
  • parental unemployment
  • social isolation
  • inadequate housing 
  • homelessness
  • lack of access to adequately resourced schools
  • lack of access to social support, including child care and social services
  • exposure to racism and/or discrimination
  • stressful life events

Sources: Brown, Cohen, Johnson, & Salzinger (1998); Stith et al. (2009); US Department of Health and Human Services (2011).

Common protective factors for child abuse and neglect

Protective factors are positive attributes that can strengthen all families. Research has identified a number of protective factors that are associated with reduced incidence of child abuse and neglect. For vulnerable families experiencing multiple risk factors, protective factors such as having a strong parent-child attachment or good social support networks can increase the resilience of children and families. Parents who are emotionally resilient are likely to have a positive attitude, are able to creatively solve problems, effectively address challenges, and are less likely to direct anger and frustration at their children (Gilligan, 2001; US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011). The most common protective factors that may assist in reducing the incidence of child abuse and neglect identified in research are outlined in Table 2, using the developmental-ecological model.

Table 2: Common protective factors for reducing the incidence of child abuse and neglect
Ecological level Protective factors

Individual/child factors

  • good health
  • positive peer relationships
  • strong, positive social networks
  • hobbies/interests
  • high self-esteem
  • independence
  • secure attachment with parent/s
  • social skills
  • positive disposition

Family/parental factors

  • secure attachment with child
  • positive parent-child relationship
  • supportive family environment
  • extended family networks
  • high level of parental education
  • parental resilience
  • concrete support for parents
  • sound parental coping skills
  • awareness of stages in child development

Social/environmental factors

  • strong, positive social networks
  • stable housing
  • employment
  • family expectations of pro-social behaviour
  • well-resourced schools available in neighbourhood
  • access to health and social services

Sources: Counts, Buffington, Chang-Rios, Rasmussen, & Preacher (2010); US Department of Health and Human Services (2011).

The strengths-based intervention approach

Research suggests that effective intervention services for vulnerable families should focus on reducing modifiable risk factors and promoting protective factors (Irenyi et al., 2006). Although the ultimate goal of any intervention strategy is to reduce the impact of risk factors, by building on family strengths, families are better placed to cope with stress, which in turn can lead to a reduced incidence of child abuse and neglect. These insights have led to increased popularity of the "strengths-based" approach to child welfare. In a strengths-based intervention approach that focuses on building protective factors, parents themselves can identify and build on their own strengths to help enhance their parenting capacity (NSW Department of Community Services, 2007; Turnell & Edwards, 1999). Promoting protective factors may also help professionals working with families to build more positive relationships with clients.

As risk and protective factors are often interrelated within families, the strengths-based intervention approach also aims to address multiple risk and protective factors, rather than focus on a single factor. Interventions that deal with several domains of functioning (such as the child, family and community) rather than a single domain, potentially have a greater influence on achieving better outcomes (NSW Department of Community Services, 2007).

One example of a strengths-based intervention approach to child welfare is Turnell and Edwards' (1999) "Signs of Safety" approach to child protection. Signs of Safety guides practitioners to evaluate not simply risk factors, but also family competencies, strengths, and resources. According to Turnell and Edwards, focusing solely on risk factors is "rather like mapping only the darkest valleys and gloomiest hollows of a particular territory" (p. 49), and therefore their approach attempts to "consider danger and safety simultaneously and to achieve a balanced, comprehensive assessment" (p. 100). Additionally, practitioners using the Signs of Safety assessment framework seek to identify and understand the values, beliefs, and meanings held by all members of the family with which they are working, as well as to determine the willingness and capacity of the family to carry out any suggested plans. In recent years the Signs of Safety approach has enjoyed considerable attention and influence both in Australia and internationally.


All families exhibit both risk and protective factors to some extent. The interaction of multiple risk factors in combination with limited protective factors may significantly increase the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. Strong protective factors in families such as supportive social networks and a good parent-child attachment can build resilience in children and parents. For this reason, focusing on strengthening protective factors has been shown to be an effective intervention strategy for working with vulnerable families.

Additional CFCA readings


  • Begle, A. M., Dumas, J. E., & Hanson, R. F. (2010). Predicting child abuse potential: An empirical investigation of two theoretical frameworks. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 39(2), 208-219.
  • Bromfield, L., Lamont, A., Parker, R., & Horsfall, B. (2010). Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems(NCPC Issues 33). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/issues/​issues33/index.html>
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • Brown, J., Cohen, P., Johnson, J., & Salzinger, S. (1998). A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for child maltreatment: Findings of a 17-year prospective study of officially recorded and self-reported child abuse and neglect. Child abuse & Neglect, 22, 1065-1078.
  • Cowling, V. (2004). Children of parents with mental illness 2: Personal and clinical perspectives. Melbourne: ACER Press.
  • Counts, J., Buffington, E., Chang-Rios, K., Rasmussen, H., & Preacher, K. (2010). The development and validation of the protective factors survey: A self-report measure of protective factors against child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34, 762-772.
  • Crouch, J., & Behl, L. (2001). Relationships among parental beliefs in corporal punishment, reported stress and physical child abuse potential. Child Abuse & Neglect, 25(3), 413-419.
  • Douglas, E. (2006). Familial violence socialization in childhood and later life approval of corporal punishment: A cross-cultural perspective. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76, 23-30.
  • Gilbert, R., Spatz Widom, C., Browne, K., Fergusson, D., Webb, E., & Janson, J. (2009). Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries. Lancet, 373, 68-81.
  • Gilligan, R. (2001) Promoting Resilience  -  A resource guide on working with children in the care. London, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.
  • Goldman, J., Salus, M., Wolcott, D., & Kennedy, K. (2003). What factors contribute to child abuse and neglect? A coordinated response to child abuse and neglect: The foundation for practice. Washington D.C.: Office on Child Abuse and Neglect.
  • Irenyi, M., Bromfield, L. M., Beyer, L. R., & Higgins, D. J. (2006). Child maltreatment in organisations: Risk factors and strategies for prevention (Child Abuse Prevention Issues No. 25). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/issues/​issues25/issues25.html>
  • Iwaniec, D., Larkin, E., & Higgins, S. (2006). Research review: Risk and resilience in cases of emotional abuse. Child and Family Social Work, 11(1), 73-82.
  • Lamont, A. (2010). Effects of child abuse and neglect for adult survivors (NCPC Resource Sheet). Retrieved from <www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/pubs/factsheets/​a146123/index.html> (republished by Child Family Community Australia, 2014)
  • MacKenzie, M. J., Kotch, J. B., & Lee, L. (2011). Toward a cumulative ecological risk model for the etiology of child maltreatment. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1638-1647.
  • Masten, A. S., & Wright, M. O. (1998). Cumulative risk and protection models of child maltreatment. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 2, 7-30.
  • NSW Department of Community Services. (2007). Risk, protection and resilience in children and families (Research to practice notes). Retrieved from <www.community.nsw.gov.au/docswr/​_assets/main/documents/​researchnotes_resilience.pdf>
  • Pears, K., & Capaldi, D. (2001). Intergenerational transmission of abuse: A two-generational prospective study of an at-risk sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 25, 1439-1461.
  • Ronan, K., Canoy, D., & Burke, K. (2009). Child maltreatment: Prevalence, risk, solutions, obstacles. Australian Psychologist, 44, 195-213.
  • Stith, S., Liu, T., Davies, C., Boykin, E., Alder, M., Harris, J. M. et al. (2009). Risk factors in child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(1), 13-29.
  • Turnell, A., & Edwards, S. (1999). Signs of Safety: A solution and safety oriented approach to child protection. New York: Norton & Company.
  • US Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). Strengthening families and communities: 2011 resource guide. Retrieved from <https://www.childwelfare.gov/preventing/​preventionmonth/guide2011/>


1 In this paper, the terms "child abuse and neglect" and "child maltreatment" are used interchangeably.

2 Child abuse and neglect may occur across all socio-economic, religious, cultural, racial and ethnic groups. Determining the extent to which cultural values (macrosystem) influence rates of child abuse and neglect is difficult. However, research suggests that cultural attitudes towards violence is associated with approval rates of physical punishment (Douglas, 2006), which has in turn be associated with higher rates of physical child abuse (Crouch & Behl, 2001).

3 Although children are not responsible for maltreatment they experience, research has found that certain child characteristics may increase the risk for child abuse and neglect. For example, children with disabilities or behavioural problems are more vulnerable to experience harsher styles of parenting and child neglect (Iwaniec, Larkin, & Higgins, 2006).

Authors and Acknowledgements

This paper was complied by Alister Lamont, Senior Communication Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and Rhys Price-Robertson, Senior Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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CFCA Resource Sheet
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2013.

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