Common characteristics and family patterns

Lonely childWhen we hear the term at-risk kids, it’s easy to think of the trouble-makers, the behavior problems, the children who seem to fall farther behind each year. And while these young people tend to demand a good portion of our time, energy, and resources, there are others whose vulnerability often goes unnoticed until some significant, sometimes tragic, event occurs.

These two lists were originally developed to focus on patterns observed in children (and in their families) as possible predictors of the child’s vulnerability for substance abuse and addiction, including alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances and behaviors. While these children would certainly come under the heading of being “at risk,” this list has expanded over the years to also include children who are at risk for school failure, dropping out, gang involvement, early (or unprotected) sexual activity, violence, and vandalism, as well as those children who are at risk for perfectionism, overachieving, compulsive behavior, social vulnerability, food and body issues, intentional self-injury, and suicide.

While the characteristics and beliefs one type of risk may not specifically intersect with those that might predict a different type of vulnerability, I’m posting this information in the hopes that we expand our picture of what the term “at-risk child” actually means. I’ve often said that any child is likely to be at risk, so let’s be sure that nobody, including the invisible kids, class clowns, super achievers, and anyone going through a tough time (or just having a bad day) slips through the cracks.

Expect this list to continue to grow. If you spot something I’ve neglected to include, please be sure to contact me or add it in the “Comment” section.


Using a broad, inclusive definition of at-risk behavior and vulnerability, some of the following characteristics may apply. (Note that many of these characteristics are also applicable to adults.) At-risk children:

  • Do not feel valued, connected, or secure in the family
  • Do not feel valued, connected, or secure in school
  • Do not feel visible or listened to in a meaningful way
  • Have a strong sense of not fitting in; feel excluded; not have an important aspect of their identity acknowledged; experience actual discrimination (cultural, social, religious, racial, sexual orientation, disability; family income or socioeconomic status; interests, skills, passions; appearance, clothing, style; academic ability or athletic ability, for example)
  • Lack meaningful connection with a caring, significant adult (in the family, community, or school)
  • Lack meaningful connection with positive role models
  • Do not believe that their opinions are valued or heard
  • Frequently demonstrate a low tolerance for frustration
  • Have unrealistic expectations of themselves, others, or situations
  • Have difficulty seeing connection between their choices and the outcomes of their choices
  • Have difficulty predicting outcomes of possible choices; difficulty thinking things through
  • Have difficulty seeing alternatives or “ways out” of problem situations
  • Experience despair much of the time; believe that they cannot positively and realistically affect or change their lives
  • Have a strong sense of victimization, powerlessness, helplessness; low sense of autonomy OR a strong sense of entitlement
  • Have feelings of inadequacy, a sense of never being good enough; low sense of worth, capability; may tend to equate achievement with worth; may confuse making a mistake with being a failure
  • Have difficulty expressing feelings constructively; tend to “stuff” feelings or blow up (often with little apparent provocation)
  • Compete for power with most adults (and, often, peers)
  • Have difficulty taking no for an answer
  • Have difficulty hearing negative feedback
  • Have difficulty balancing consideration for others with consideration for selves
  • Have few interests; may use TV, video games, or other electronics to numb out OR likely to be significantly overscheduled, involved in too many activities; use attempt to use busyness to not experience feelings or prove worth
  • Rarely invite other kids to their homes; apparent social isolation
  • Lack a strong positive core belief system
  • Have difficulty solving problems or making decisions
  • Tend to blame or avoid responsibility; OR tend to act and feel overly responsible for other people
  • Have difficulty asking for help
  • Have difficulty thinking independently; easily talked into things
  • Have a tendency toward people pleasing, compliance, approval-seeking,dependency OR rebelliousness, bullying, abusiveness, hostile behavior
  • Reluctant to try new things; have a fear of failure OR reckless, dare-devil behavior
  • Are perfectionistic, self-critical OR seemingly indifferent
  • Have difficulty finishing projects or assignments OR compulsive involvement and overachievement
  • Rarely share feelings and thoughts with at least one family member (or other safe adult)
  • Demonstrate poor school performance; dislike of school; poor attendance OR compulsive overachiever
  • Frequently experience a mismatch between instruction and learning style (how they learn)
  • Frequently experience a mismatch between content and interest; perception of content as useless or irrelevant
  • Frequently experience a mismatch between content and cognitive ability (work is either too hard or too easy); lack of prerequisite skills OR bored because they’re not being adequately challenged
  • Demonstrate delinquent behavior; school misbehavior; acting out (often to cover-up inability to perform, lack of knowledge)
  • Have friends who use drugs or alcohol; friends who are in gangs; friends who have dropped out
  • Have favorable attitudes toward drug use; early first use of drugs or alcohol; early sexual activity or other risk behavior

Note: Everyone probably experiences some of these risk factors from time to time and I doubt there are many kids who would not relate to several of the items on this list. The presence of many risk factors does not condemn students to negative or dangerous outcomes, nor does the apparent lack of these characteristics mean they will avoid problems. However, students who frequently characterize many of the factors described above are typically at greater risk than students who do not, especially those who receive support, encouragement, and necessary intervention.

The best protective asset for all children is a sense of connectedness at school, with a relationship to a safe, caring adult being one of the most powerful assets of all.

Family patterns

Behaviors of the significant adults in the lives of at-risk children may include:

  • Negative or antagonistic relationship with the school, with the legal system, or community resources
  • Lack of involvement in child’s education; places low value on school and education
  • Substance abuse and addiction; compulsive behavior; issues involving food, weight, or appearance
  • Codependency (supporting someone’s addiction, or irresponsible or abusive behavior)
  • Compulsive behavior, mental illness (especially with no support or intervention)
  • Verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Inconsistency or neglect; does not hold child accountable to family for behaviors or whereabouts; OR overinvolvement and control of child; lack of privacy or boundaries with other family members
  • Dependence on child’s appearance, achievement, or performance (academic, athletic, other) to give a sense of worth to the family; or to distract from patterns of addiction or abuse practiced by adult family member; pressure on child
  • Reactivity, rigidity, perfectionism, dishonesty, double standards, shaming, blaming, mistrust, all-or-nothing thinking, disempowering, martyrdom, intolerance, future or past orientation, negativity, criticism, boundary violations, self-righteousness, denial, or enabling.
  • Tendency to notice flaws, errors, and omissions; infrequent expressions of recognition, validation, acknowledgement; praise expressed to manipulate and control (or expressed only publicly, “for show.”)
  • Lack of encouragement, lack of faith in child’s ability (or lack of faith in school or child’s ability to succeed there)
  • Drug use; use of illegal drugs around children; heavy recreational drinking in the home
  • Involvement of children in adult drug use (for example, asking the child to get a beer or light a cigarette for the adult)
  • Family patterns of dismissing feelings, distracting or rescuing person from feelings, or using feelings as a basis for shaming, blaming, attacking, or making someone wrong.
  • Family pattern of superficial identity and comparison; pigeonholing children, even with apparently positive labels: “the smart one,” “the popular one,” or “the cute one.”
  • Infrequent or inconsistent expressions of love and acceptance; conditional love based on specifics such as appearance, achievement, social competence, performance, or how well the child takes care of the adult’s needs, (rather than on unconditional worth of the child)

Adapted from numerous sources, including Creating Emotionally Safe Schools, by Dr. Jane Bluestein (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc,  2001); How to Drug-Proof Kids (by Jodi Freeman, Albuquerque, NM: The Think Shop, Inc., 1989); and “Risk Check for your Child,” (handout from Garfield Middle School, Albuquerque, NM). Additional items on these lists have come from comments or correspondences from workshop participants, as well as personal observation and experience.

© 1989, 1995, 2001, 2012, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Photo credit: Windwood Farm Family Services.

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Related resources:

Building Your Classroom Community
Improving Student Behavior Through School Climate— It’s not about the Rules
Is Your School an Emotionally Safe Place? Survey
Jane Bluestein Discusses Emotionally Safe Schools: Interview
The “Ideal” Student
The School as a Dysfunctional Family
Some Kids (Really Do) Study Better When…

Book: Creating Emotionally Safe Schools
Book: The Win-Win Classroom
Book: The Beginning Teacher’s Survival Guide: Win-Win Strategies for Success

Audio: Practical Strategies for Working Successfully with Difficult Students

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Free download: “Pads” on the Back Templates in multiple languages


The Choice is Yours with Lynn Collins
Compassionate Schools with James Wright
“Constructive Differencing” with Jared Scherz
Creating an Environment of Resiliency in School with David Friedli
The Fragile Learner with Hanoch McCarty
The Future and Art of Drug Education with Jeffrey Wolfsberg

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