Trauma affects every child differently depending on their age, personality and past experiences.

Trauma can disrupt the relationships a child has with their family and school staff, as well as affect the development of a child’s language and physical skills, and their social and emotional wellbeing.

Intergenerational trauma and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people may experience trauma through direct experience (through abuse, neglect and exposure to violence) or secondary exposure.

Secondary exposure occurs through bearing witness to the past traumatic experiences of their family and community members as a result of colonisation, forced removals and other government policies.

A key consequence of secondary exposure to traumatic experiences is intergenerational trauma – a form of historical trauma that is transmitted across generations (1).

As the Healing Foundation noted:

“The trauma experienced by Indigenous people as a result of colonisation and subsequent policies, such as the forced removal of children, has had devastating consequences. The disruption of our culture and the negative impacts on the cultural identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has had lasting negative effects, passed from generation to generation. The cumulative effect of historical and intergenerational trauma severely reduces the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to fully and positively participate in their lives and communities, thereby leading to widespread disadvantage.” (2)

Despite these significant challenges, there are many aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that can protect, support and strengthen the resilience of children experiencing trauma.

Understanding the relationship between trauma and shame

Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty understanding their own feelings. They can find it hard to experience strong emotions (even positive ones) because in the past they were signals that a threat was coming.

Also, strong emotions like shame can trigger memories of the trauma itself. Shame may have many different meanings to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but is often used to describe things that people see as embarrassing or private; or that are associated with stigma and negative connotations.

Wanting to avoid shame and embarrassment can also prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families from seeking and receiving support when they need it.

Accordingly, it’s really important that health and community professionals are aware of and sensitive to the things that can cause shame.

Five ways to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who have experienced trauma 

Research suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more vulnerable to developing behavioural difficulties after experiencing trauma.

When health and community professionals are aware of the effect trauma can have on children’s behaviour and know what to look out for, they can help children and their families to get support when they need it.

1. Understand culturally appropriate communication

Learning more about culturally appropriate communication can help health and community professionals approach a child’s family if they notice something is going on for a student.

By being aware that respectful ways of communicating (for example body language, eye contact) for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be different from their own culture, it can be easier for health and community professionals to talk with families about difficult topics.

2. Find out more about cultural aspects of trauma

Learning more about what trauma can mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities means that school staff can be equipped to recognise the signs of trauma, and support children and families in ways that are culturally appropriate.

3. Don’t shame the child, their family or community

Shame is an important concept in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

It is very important that health and community professionals don’t shame a child, their family or community because it can prevent them from seeking and receiving support when they need it. 

Feeling shame can also trigger memories of trauma for children and of trauma their families have experienced in the past.

Sometimes this can result in children being reluctant to come to school, or they may not come to school at all because the school isn’t seen as a culturally safe environment.

When health and community professionals are aware of the kind of language and behaviour that can cause children, families and communities to feel shame, re-triggering trauma is more likely to be avoided.

4. Use trauma-informed practice in the classroom

Another way health and community professionals can support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who have experienced trauma is to use trauma-informed practice in the classroom

For example, one practice is to help children to tell their story. Children who have experienced trauma often don’t have a vocabulary to talk about what happened to them, telling their story to others can help children process what they have experienced and find meaning in it.

5. Active empowerment: seek out and use culturally appropriate community and family supports

Kinship systems are a key protective factor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families who have experienced trauma.

Children who have experienced trauma benefit from kinship care, because the relationships keep them connected to their family, community and culture; and support their healing from trauma.

Support networks could involve community Elders, Aboriginal liaison officers or support workers at school, or anyone who the children and families respect and trust.

When children and families have a support network, they can turn to those people and organisations for culturally appropriate support or assistance when they need it. 

This could include providing opportunities for community Elders and support workers to be actively engaged with school events through welcoming ceremonies to promote inclusion.

KidsMatter resources - Aboriginal animations support social and emotional wellbeing

KidsMatter, in partnership with a team of experienced Aboriginal consultants, has developed a series of animations and accompanying resources to support Aboriginal children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

These animations and supporting resources also aim to help health and community professionals gain a better understanding of what social and emotional wellbeing can mean to Aboriginal people.

Watch the video “Connecting to Heal”, which guides users through which resources are appropriate for their circumstances.

For more information

Sources:

(1) Atkinson, J, Nelson, J, and Atkinson, C 2010, ‘Trauma, transgenerational transfer and effects on community wellbeing’, in N Purdie, P Dudgeon and R Walker (eds),Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing practices and principles, Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra, pp.135–144.

(2) Growing our children up strong and deadly – healing for children and young people, Healing Foundation