Ever heard stories about someone overcoming almost unspeakable tragedy? Most of us have. We’ve also heard about people who not only overcome adversity but seem to thrive no matter what life throws their way.

We admire their courage, tell others the story, and describe how incredibly strong they are. Many of us wonder if we’d have the resilience to get through something so difficult ourselves.

The desire to believe in heroes among us runs very deep, and we tend to view a person as either strong or weak. In short, we tend to think you either have it or you don’t; but that’s not realistic.

Researchers have learned that a person is not really born with or without resilience, though some genes do contribute to how well we respond to our environment, and having an easy temperament helps us seek the right kind of help when we need it. Early childhood experiences and connections in the community and family are the most important factors in how well we respond to difficulty.

Think about it like a seesaw: on the one side, you have protective factors that help lift you up, and on the other, risk factors that weigh you down.

Protective factors help a child develop a sense of purpose, build self-esteem, and instill confidence that results in better social and communication skills, higher cognitive development, and a more positive outlook. They may also have had the advantages that a strong community provides (a safe neighbourhood; social support; positive experiences in school; and participation in arts, sports, and religion), or other financial, social, or cultural advantages.

When risk factors outweigh the protective factors, it is hard for anyone to overcome serious trauma or chronic stress.

While individual circumstances are largely out of our control when we are children, as adults, we can help those in our care learn to cope better. Parents, religious leaders, teachers, counsellors, and anyone concerned about a child or teen can take part. We can teach coping skills, provide firm boundaries, promote consistency, and hold reasonably high expectations for behaviour. We can model the joys of volunteering and teamwork, increase daily activity, and help others make realistic plans or solve problems.

Everyone needs to feel heard and understood, and all behaviour has a reason, even if we do not ourselves understand it. As adults, it’s our job to get to what is causing the behaviour and address it in ways that will help young people make better choices in the future.

When we feel secure and have good connections, it is much easier to cope with difficulty, have empathy for others, solve problems, and develop plans to care for ourselves. We need to harness the power of the amazing brain to adapt in healthy ways.

The alternative for too many of our young people is self-medication with cannabis, alcohol, or other substances. This may alleviate some anxiety and negative emotions in the short-term, but has obvious implications for damage, especially while brains are in rapid development.

The Kids and Teens in Control programs accept participant referrals on a continuous basis throughout the year. These referrals come from a variety of sources, including healthcare professionals, community agencies, counsellors, family members, and caregivers. Youth (14+) can self-refer. Please use this form to make a referral.

The Kids in Control program has also prepared several booklets that can be used to help younger children understand serious mental illness, and it may be helpful to review these with children who, after all, have a need to understand just as much as they need to be understood: