All resilience research shares the basic assumption that there are potentially many factors that can contribute to how people deal with adversity and life stressors. Early resilience research revealed “…a surprising degree of consistency in qualities of people, relationships, and resources that predicted resilience” (Masten & O’Dougherty Wright, 2009, p214). The factors so identified have shown robust staying power in later research efforts.

Risk factors are defined as those that predispose a young person to a range of poor social and behavioural outcomes, such as harmful substance use (Williams, Toumbourou, Williamson, Hemphill, & Patton, 2009; Catalano & Hawkins, 1996; Lerner & Benson, 2003; Bond, Thomas, Toumbourou, Patton & Catalano, 2000). Conversely, protective factors reduce the likelihood of adversity leading to poor social and behavioural outcomes and moderate the influence of other risk factors.

Williams and colleagues (2009) explain that risk or protective factors can be intrapersonal and operate at an individual level, or they can be found within an individual’s social environment or result from the interaction of the individual and the social environment. Spooner, Hall and Lynskey (2001) add that different risk factors are important at different times in one’s development. A variable that is a risk factor at one time can become a protective factor at a different point in the developmental pathway.

These factors have been determined through many large-scale quantitative studies conducted to find out the statistical probabilities for either maladjustment or positive adaptation (see Luthar, 2006; Masten, 2001). They have been complemented by qualitative longitudinal studies that enable  “…researchers to see the working parts of people’s lives; they give us rich pictures which flesh out the general patterns revealed by larger quantitative studies” (Johnston & Howard, 2007; p13).

Masten and O’Dougherty Wright (2009) warn that in the field of human behaviour and development, risk and protective factors are indicative and should not be used in efforts to predict future outcomes with certainty. Further, they note that:

“… it is often difficult to show that a chronic risk factor (e.g. family violence) occurred before any sign of problems in a child, since the risks and outcomes are ongoing in development and often  do not have a readily identifiable beginning or end” (p220).

This uncertainty about objective reality suggests the potential value of investigating the subjective understandings and meanings that young people and those in their intimate social networks might ascribe to their experiences. Boyden and Mann (2005) and Ungar et al. (2007) have advocated for the use of people’s own culturally determined indicators of resilience in contemporary studies. This would include more subjective measures such as enabling young people to assess their own resilience and flexible notions of what constitutes success based on culturally and contextually appropriate measures.