In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Youth at Risk

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Treatment Manuals and Intervention Guides
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Development of the Study of Youth at Risk
  • Poverty and Context Specificity
  • Culture and Ethnic Minority Status
  • Gender
  • Sexual Minority Status
  • Well-Being

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Social Work Youth at Risk
Craig Winston LeCroy, Elizabeth K. Anthony
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0112


“Youth at risk” is a general term for a range of circumstances that place young people at greater vulnerability for problem behaviors, such as substance abuse, school failure, and juvenile delinquency, along with mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. When studying youth at risk, researchers typically focus on the risk factors that contribute to—and the protective factors that serve to buffer against—problematic outcomes. Protective factors can be thought of as either personal factors, such as problem-solving abilities or competence, and perceived efficacy or environmental resources, such as social support in the community or family income. A paradigm shift in the field more than twenty years ago brought considerably more attention to the adaptive behaviors and outcomes of youth at risk in the form of resilience studies. The challenge for those studying youth at risk is in identifying young people who are more likely to develop problems that prevent them from transitioning to healthy adults—hence the notion of “risk.” While much of the risk research emerges with a focus on epidemiology and therefore the study of individual “risky behavior,” other research has emphasized “risky situations or environments,” where circumstances predispose young people to engage in behavior with serious negative consequences. This entry identifies major references for studying youth at risk from the disciplines involved in this field (child psychiatry, developmental psychopathology, developmental psychology, public health, prevention science, and social work). Youth are differentiated from children and adults by the developmental tasks of early, middle, and late adolescence (typically ages ten to eighteen but sometimes including young adults age nineteen to twenty-four).

Introductory Works

Many research references addressing youth at risk focus on one or more specific outcomes of interest, such as school failure or drug abuse, rather than broad outcomes, such as well-being or resilience. Several edited texts for researchers, such as Masten 2015 and Fraser 2004, begin with comprehensive introductions to the risk and resilience framework and provide detailed explorations of specific domains of interest in subsequent chapters. Masten is considered one of the top researchers on resilience and presents the cutting-edge research on resilience. Luthar 2003 presents a sophisticated exploration of methodological and analytic issues in studying risk and resilience that researchers and advanced graduate students will likely find valuable. Notably the text also includes summaries of progress in genetics and neurobehavioral outcomes research. For researchers, graduate students, and practitioners interested in both a theoretical and an empirical overview Fraser 2004 offers detailed examinations of substantive areas. Kann, et al. 2016 presents comprehensive data on risk behaviors from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance studies.

  • Brooks, E. J. 2006. Strengthening resilience in children and youths: Maximizing opportunities through the schools. Children & Schools 28.2: 69–76.

    DOI: 10.1093/cs/28.2.69

    Reviews literature on resilience and suggests guidelines for using a risk/resilience framework to promote positive outcomes for youth. Specifically examines the school environment as a focus for enhancing resilience.

  • Evans, D. L., E. B. Foa, R. E. Gur, et al., eds. 2005. Treating and preventing adolescent mental health disorders: What we know and what we don’t know: A research agenda for improving the mental health of our youth. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A must-read for understanding youth at risk for mental disorders, this book reviews scientific advances and provides a conceptual framework that emphasizes risk reduction for mental disorders. This is a comprehensive resource.

  • Fraser, Mark W., ed. 2004. Risk and resilience in childhood: An ecological perspective. 2d ed. Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.

    Fraser’s edited text provides an introduction to risk and resilience from a multisystems perspective. Chapters cover risk and protective factors for a range of risk conditions and behaviors, such as child maltreatment, alcohol and other drug use, adolescent pregnancy, and childhood depression.

  • Hagan, John, and Bill McCarthy. 1998. Mean streets: Youth crime and homelessness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A landmark field study about life on the streets for young people that proposes a social capital theory of crime. This book is noted for its in-depth ethnography and interviews of youth as well as detailed quantitative data analysis.

  • Kann, L., T. McManus, W. A. Harris, et al. 2016. Youth risk behavior surveillance — United States, 2015. MMWR Surveillance Summaries 65.6: 1–174. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Examines health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of morbidity and mortality among youth. Based on the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) data is obtained in six health areas: unintentional injuries and violence, tobacco use, alcohol and drug use, sexual behaviors, diet behaviors, and physical activity.

  • Kelly, P. 2000. The dangerousness of youth-at-risk: The possibilities of surveillance and intervention in uncertain times. Journal of Adolescence 23.4: 463–476.

    DOI: 10.1006/jado.2000.0331

    This paper presents underlying issues with the narrative of “youth-at-risk” The author suggests that this categorization of youth is an effort to regulate the behaviors and dispositions of youth. Implications for using this characterization, such as increased surveillance, are discussed.

  • Luthar, Suniya S., ed. 2003. Resilience and vulnerability: Adaptation in the context of childhood adversities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Offers thorough presentations and critiques of the research in major areas of resilience and vulnerability studies. Several insightful commentary chapters integrate the major research issues in examining resilience and make suggestions for researchers looking to advance the field.

  • Masten, Ann S. 2015. Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist 56.3: 227–238.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.227

    One of the debates in studies on youth at risk is the seemingly rare phenomenon of resilience in young people exposed to extreme stress. Synthesizing results from variable- and person-focused studies, Masten asserts the normative and adaptive nature of resilient processes that can be cultivated in children and youth.

  • Zolkoski, S. M., and L. M. Bullock. 2012. Resilience in children and youth: A review. Children and Youth Services Review 34:2295–2303.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.08.009

    Comprehensive review of resilience research that examines models of resilience, interventions focused on resilience, and research issues.

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