Being a kid can be tough, as the all-too-familiar statistics demonstrate. The great majority of child abusers were abused as children. Most alcoholics had at least one alcoholic parent. Many adults with psychological problems suffered some childhood trauma.

Yet there is also the phenomenon of the resilient child -- the survivor of early-life traumas ranging from physical abuse and incest to emotional neglect, the death or illness of a parent, divorce, living in poverty or having a generally chaotic home life.

Yes, children are vulnerable and can be hurt -- but not as easily as you might think. In many cases, abused kids and children of alcoholics do not follow in their parents' footsteps, just as childhood traumas do not lead invariably to adult neuroses. The majority of children can recover from enormous stresses to become mature, competent adults. When given a fair chance, kids can be remarkably resilient.

It is a good thing, too. According to the American Humane Association, 1.9 million children were reported abused or neglected in 1985, the most recent year for which national statistics are available.

What's more, a Census Bureau study predicts that 45 percent of all children born in the United States in 1983 and 1984 will experience the divorce of their parents and spend some of their growing-up years in a single-parent household.

Knowing what makes for a fair chance, what contributes to resiliency, might enable more children to be helped through rough times. But for the most part, those who are not resilient are the ones whom psychologists have studied. After all, it is those people who do abuse their children or drink too much or have psychological problems who come in for help. "Doctor, I'd like to talk to you because my dad was a drunk and I'm not and I'm worried about it" is not a line too many psychologists hear. Thus, little is known about the good outcomes.

That is changing now. After a decade of looking at how kids cope with a variety of circumstances, psychologists are starting to get a picture of what makes some children more resilient than others.

"We are trying to identify the protective factors that enable some children to handle high levels of stress while others can't," says Ann S. Masten, assistant professor of child psychiatry in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. "After all, there is a lot of variability in kids' responses to stress. We see children who grew up in very stressful situations who end up in terrible shape, but many children end up as very competent adults despite adversity."

Masten, Norman Garmezy and Auke Tellegen, psychologists who direct Project Competence, a study Garmezy started in 1978 to find out why some children at risk for developmental problems survive to become competent adults. "I wanted to understand the ordinary people who survive everyday experiences," says Garmezy, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. "I also wanted to eliminate the surprise that people are so adaptive. After all, we are perhaps the most adaptive species on earth."

That ability to adapt lets most people cope with the wide variety of everyday stresses: your car won't start, you hate your job, the restaurant is out of what you really want for lunch, your shirts weren't ready at the cleaners.

Children are no different. They, too, deal with stress daily: They fall and bruise their shin, they drop their ice cream cone on the ground, they get teased at school, their parents won't let them have a bicycle that every other kid has.

But what about major traumas? Divorce, child abuse, poverty, a schizophrenic parent, death of a parent or sibling, an alcoholic parent?

In recent weeks, newspaper headlines have chronicled the recovery of the miracle child Cecilia Cichan, the lone survivor of the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 255. The 4-year-old girl suffered third-degree burns over 30 percent of her body, a concussion, a broken collarbone and a broken leg along with numerous cuts and bruises. She also lost her mother, her father and her 6-year-old brother in a catastrophic plane wreck that took the lives of 154 people.

Mental health experts know that such a trauma will leave a profound psychological imprint on her life. She is at risk of depression and other emotional disturbances. But there is also every possibility that she can come through the enormous tragedy in relatively good shape. One important factor is her family, and already 10 relatives have flown to Detroit to take care of her.

"The resilience of the human spirit knows no bounds," Gail Sheehy, author of "Passages" and "Spirit of Survival," said recently in a newspaper interview. "There is a natural capacity for healing from mental scars that most of us would consider unendurable."

But no matter how resilient a child may be, no child is invulnerable. The same studies that have identified resilient children have also found evidence that no one is tough enough to survive unlimited risk factors and high-stress situations unscathed. "Every child has their Achilles' heel," says David Pellegrini, psychology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former member of Project Competence. "Put any child under enough stress with few supports and they will not do well."

Much also depends on what kinds of stress the child experiences. Chronic sexual abuse may inflict much deeper psychological wounds than a divorce, for example -- but not always.

"My feeling about stress-resistant kids is that it's certainly the case that there's a range of developmental outcomes," says psychologist Byron Egeland, co-director of the Mother-Child Interaction Project at the University of Minnesota. "But over all, I'd say that in severe stress cases, such as kids who are emotionally and physically maltreated, the majority of the kids develop poorly."

The person given credit for getting people to ask, "What is right?" is Norman Garmezy of the University of Minnesota. In the late 1960s, he and his coworkers began looking at the psychological development of several groups of children. Their most detailed study, Project Competence, is still going on today and involves 205 children from a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis. This was a very heterogeneous sample: 91 boys and 114 girls; 28 percent of the children were minorities, 45 percent were from intact families, 38 percent had single parents.

Nine years ago, when the children were in third and fourth grade, the research team spent hours interviewing the children, their parents, teachers and peers. They then determined the children's level of stress and competence the following year and again this past year. The interviewers concentrated on determining what stresses the child been subjected to, what their family life was like and how well they did at school -- both in class and interacting with classmates -- and how they behaved at home. "This was the first systematic attempt to look specifically at what factors, both positive and negative, played roles in a child's developing into a competent adolescent," says Garmezy.

In another study, psychologist Emmy T. Werner, who is now professor of human development at the University of California in Davis, heads a team of pediatricians, psychologists and social workers that has followed the physical and emotional development of all the children born in 1955 on the rural island of Kauai, at the northwest end of the Hawaiian island chain. During the course of the study, Werner became interested in the question of resilience; of the nearly 700 children in the study, roughly 20 percent were faced with severe stresses -- poverty, illness, pregnancy -- and had adjustment problems. But another 72 were classified as resilient.

"These children had a lot of stress in their lives," says Werner, "but they could draw on a number of ameliorative factors in themselves and in their caregiving environment that tilted the balance from 'undergoing' to 'doing' " -- they took charge of their lives -- "that led to successful developmental outcomes."

After following the entire group of children for 20 years, Werner was able to develop a list of protective factors, which she and colleague Ruth S. Smith published in her 1982 book "Vulnerable/Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children," a volume many consider the most complete piece of work in the field to date. Some of these factors were internal characteristics, while others were in the children's environments {see box}. Both, however, are required for a child to do well under a lot of stress.

One boy in the Hawaii study, for example, who is now a young man, grew up under very stressful conditions: He was born prematurely to a 16-year-old Japanese mother and a 19-year-old Filipino father; his father was away in the Army for the first two years of the boy's life; his mother deserted the family when the boy was 8. These are all stresses, or risk factors, that can set a child up for later developmental problems: poor academic performance, trouble making friends or being sociable, low self-esteem or feeling of being at life's mercy rather than a sense of self-determination.

The boy was fortunate, however. As a young child, while his mother was still there, he received a lot of attention from her, and from his grandmother and great-grandmother, who all considered him a cuddly, good-natured, easy-to-care-for child. He was also a very bright boy, IQ 122, and his father, although under a lot of stress himself, was very supportive and loving. The result at age 18 was that the boy was a picture of competence. He had a scholarship to college, was well-liked and respected by his peers and had high self-esteem and strong values.

While a good, loving parent or caretaker can do a lot to help a child surmount developmental risks, not all children are as fortunate. In those cases, outside factors can substitute. One young girl, for example, was born to an unwed 17-year-old who was indifferent to her child and eventually gave her chil to her parents. The baby's grandparents were poor and did little to stimulate her interest in education. They were strict and not overtly affectionate; at the same time, they did provide a stable home environment. The girl got along with them, but to her, the most important support came from her participation in a recreation club. "I was secretary; I learned about responsibility, to be on time." She also was a cheerleader and learned "to be closer to people, to have fun," she said. says these two cases -- in which the children were in situations of unusually high stress but had good outcomes -- are not unusual. "One of every four children who were raised in high-risk situations, such as chronic poverty or a mother with little education, were what we would call resilient. They were well-adjusted, had positive outlooks and generally seemed in charge of their lives."

Ann Masten of Project Competence finds that humor can play a key role in coping with stress. Sigmund Freud described humor as a way of gaining control of a situation that you don't really have control over -- and think of how many times you've cracked a joke in a tense, stressful situation. To see if humor also helped children cope, Masten obtained the permission of Ziggy creator Tom Wilson to use his popular cartoon character to study the relationship between humor and resilience.

Children rated Ziggy cartoons for funniness, and interviewers also noted how hard they laughed; Masten also deleted the humorous captions in some cartoons as controls. The children were also asked to create their own captions for other Ziggy cartoons. For example, one fifth grader added the caption "I'm glad cows don't fly" to a cartoon showing a bird "dropping" on Ziggy's head.

The results of these exercises showed that children who laughed and smiled when rating the cartoons, especially those kids who could create funny captions, were generally more popular with their classmates and appeared to do better in school even when there was a great deal of stress in their lives. "A lot of what makes humor funny is intelligence and a good social awareness," says Masten. "So perhaps we've measured another aspect of how good children are at relating to their world, which you might expect would correlate well with an ability to deal with stress in that world."

A 'Piece of Bamboo'

One concern of psychologists and other childhood specialists is is that by identifying resilient children, they are providing fodder for those who claim that anyone who sets his or her mind to it can pull themselves up by their psychological bootstraps. "Certain people see children like these as the John Wayne type, riding high in the saddle and all that nonsense," said Werner, herself a child of the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. "But that is not the case at all. Every one of these children had some kind of outside help. They did not do it by themselves."

Werner is quick to point out that resilience is a balance between risk factors, stressful life events and protective factors within the child and protective factors in the environment.

She likens a resilient child to a piece of bamboo. "Every piece of bamboo can be broken," she said. "It's very flexible and you can bend it quite a bit. You can put it under a fair amount of stress and it will still snap back. Bend it far enough, though, and it will eventually break. Well, the same is true of the resilient child . . . You can bend that child so much and then he, too, will break."

This analogy also implies that resilient children may even look pretty bad when under a lot of stress but that they can snap back when the stress is removed.

This is often what can happen when a child undergoes the stress of divorce.

A good example is an 11-year-old girl whose parents were divorced, which is when she first came to the attention of Judith Wallerstein, executive director of the Center for the Family in Transition in Corte Madera, Calif. The girl's home life, although solidly middle-class, had been turbulent, and she took the divorce pretty hard. She was doing nothing in school, had few friends and pretty much lived in her own little fantasy world in which no adult could be trusted; she had grown up in a household where her parents had been completely dishonest with one another since Cathy was a little girl.

By age 15, things had gotten worse, both at home and in the girl's life, and she had fallen in with a motorcycle gang. But shortly afterward, her mother remarried and her stepfather took a very active interest in her life. He offered her total support and encouragement if she wanted it, and did as much as he could to show her that he cared for her and could be trusted.

That offer, and the girl's acceptance, must have helped relieve the longstanding stresses in her life, for when Wallerstein interviewed her next at age 22, the young woman had just graduated from college and was preparing to go to law school. "{She} had something inside her that had saved her enough that she could jump at the opportunity for change," said Wallerstein. "It just shows that resiliency is often a matter of luck, and when you look at the child, too. At age 15, I would not have said {she} was very stress-resistant, but she sure looks that way today."

In fact, Wallerstein says that such turnarounds are fairly common among the children of divorce that she has come in contact with over the past 11 years in her role as head of the California Children of Divorce Project. Her studies have shown, for example, that young boys are usually doing rather poorly even five years after their parents' divorce. But her recently completed 10-year follow-up found that the boys, in general, were now doing just fine. "They seem to have caught up and most are on a normal developmental course now. They do relatively well in school, get good jobs, make good relationships, etc."

Wallerstein, along with many other researchers, points out one danger in talking about resilience as if it were an all-or-nothing thing. "Resilience really depends on what criteria you look at," she said. For example, children of divorce in general take a lot of responsibility that their contemporaries don't take. "When you talk to those adolescents who've grown up in this way, they talk of themselves as strong, and have a good self-image. They look very competent. But many of them also have a great sadness in that they feel like they were cheated out of their childhood. They're resentful. So do we consider them resilient or not, since some of them are really hurting inside?"

Byron Egeland has found the same thing in a study of 267 children born to especially high-risk mothers: young, poor, uneducated, single, pregnant for the first time and coming from poor families themselves. Many of these children looked fine on the surface -- they did well in school, were friendly and sociable -- but they were what psychologists call people pleasers. "They were very quick to pick up on what other people wanted, what would make others happy," said Egeland, and would make others happy without regard to their own desires. "I would not call this normal behavior."

By far, most of the children Egeland studied developed problems as they grew up -- people pleasing being one of them.

The few that seemed to survive unscathed all managed to get pretty good care and a lot of attention from their mothers during the first year of their lives. This finding has led Egeland to urge physicians and health officials to pay more attention to this very early period. "The place to put resources for prevention is in helping these high-risk mothers during the first year of their child's life," he says.

An important focus of any intervention, he says, will be helping the mother or whoever is caring for the infant to develop a good emotional relationship with the child. Parents must learn to understand the type of care a newborn infant needs and what types of behaviors to expect in their child. This can help the child form a good attachment to the mother or other caregiver, which in turn will make the child more responsive. "It can start a chain reaction that will then give the child a greater chance to successfully negotiate other important developmental issues," says Egeland.

Emmy Werner suggests that her studies point out a number of recommendations for helping children become more resistant to stress in the lives. Parents, for example, should not overly protect their children after a stressful period. They should allow them some experiences that challenge but do not overwhelm them. Children should also be encouraged to develop a special interest or hobby that can provide gratification, especially during times of stress.

She says that parents should also give children tasks that convey a sense of responsibility and caring, and then reward them emotionally for a job well done.

Judith Wallerstein has found in her studies that this last point is very important. "I saw one child, for example, whose mother was a basket case after the divorce and the child really had to care for her. That was very stressful for the child and could have led to real developmental problems. But the mother was very grateful to the child and made a real point of telling the child this. The child received a great reward in terms of parental love and approval. The resiliency was being rewarded." As a result, says Wallerstein, the child seems to be doing well today as a young adult.

Both Wallerstein and Egeland are now starting intervention programs to see if this research can indeed help children cope better with the different traumas and stresses of their lives.

Garmezy believes that ultimately such approaches will be successful. "I'm a firm believer that deep inside, people have more competence than we give them credit for," he says. "We just have to give them the chance, the support, to develop that competence to its fullest."

Joseph Alper is a free-lance science writer in Baltimore.