Children & young people

‘Around the world, Indigenous peoples have experienced colonisation, cultural oppression, forced assimilation, and absorption into a global economy with little regard for their autonomy or wellbeing. These profound transformations have been linked to high rates of depression, alcoholism, violence and suicide in many communities, with the most dramatic impact on youth.’

The trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a result of colonisation and subsequent policies, such as the forced removal of children from their families, communities and culture, has been passed down from generation to generation and continues to have devastating consequences for our children and young people.

According to Wilson parents and carers who were forcibly separated from their own families were deprived of the experiences necessary to become ‘successful’ parents themselves.  This is a significant but not well understood factor in why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people come to the attention of child protection authorities at such alarming levels.

The Western Australian Aboriginal health survey (2005) reported that carers of children and young people who had experienced the legacy of the Stolen Generations, either directly or through family, were also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system, struggle with excessive alcohol use and gambling and have poorer mental health.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people may experience trauma either directly or through secondary exposure.

Direct traumatic experiences occur through abuse, neglect and exposure to violence (AIHW 2011). Secondary exposure for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people occurs through witnessing the results of previous traumatic experiences on family and community members as a result of colonisation, forced removals and other past government policies.

Intergenerational trauma

Secondary exposure to traumatic experiences can result in intergenerational trauma.

Intergenerational trauma is a form of historical trauma that is transmitted across generations from first generation survivors who directly experienced or witnessed the traumatic events to future generations. Other researchers have suggested that historical trauma can become normalised within a culture because it becomes embedded in the collective cultural memory of a people and is passed down through the generations in the same way culture is generally transmitted.

The transgenerational impacts of forced removals have been well documented. Peeters et al (2014) describe the burden of trauma associated with forcible removal from family and country as follows:

• The primary burden of trauma is borne by those who directly experienced forcible removal between 1910 and 1972 (first generation).

• The secondary burden of trauma lies with the families and communities of those who were forcibly removed including their children (second generation) and grandchildren (third generation).

• The future burden is the ongoing legacy of not adequately addressing trauma at an individual, family and community level and the resulting transgenerational transmission of social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing problems.

According to the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social survey (NATSISS), 10,625 people directly experienced the trauma of forcible removal, 25,844 children were living with parents affected by forcible removal, and 40,612 children continue to experience the effects of their grandparents’ removal (ABS 2008 & 2010, cited in Peeters et al 2014).

Impact on children and young people

Without adequate opportunities to overcome trauma young people internalise their experiences and seek their own means of coping. This often results in negative behaviours such as high rates of drug and alcohol addiction, violence towards themselves and others, criminal behaviour and interaction with the justice system, homelessness and leaving school early.

Unless children and young people are able to heal from their own experiences of trauma many will go on to create a traumatic environment for their children and the cycle will continue.

What works?

Evidence suggests that preventative work is far more effective than focusing solely on the symptoms of distress. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and families this means working to improve physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing by strengthening cultural connectedness and identity.

According to the national and international literature, there are seven key elements involved in successfully addressing intergenerational trauma in young people:

  • Building strong youth: Successful holistic healing programs aim to strengthen protective factors such as identity and cultural pride, confidence in life skills and desire to succeed, being part of an active community with opportunities to participate in the cultural life, and community self-governance and influence over health and education services. Protective factors increase resilience in the face of distress and enable recovery from trauma.
  • Family and community: The most effective programs are those which build a role for youth and strengthen their sense of self within their family and community. Such programs strengthen the community’s internal problem solving capacity and build shared recreational and cultural activities that involve youth and community.
  • Elders: Elders are the guardians and teachers of our cultural knowledge. Successful youth programs are guided by the wisdom of community Elders and promote the role of Elders as teachers of cultural knowledge.
  • Trusted workers: Successful programs use existing and trusted workers, community members and trusted peers, that is, other young people, within the community who can provide a network of support.  All workers need to be police checked to ensure it is appropriate and safe for them to work with young people. Key workers and community members must be supported by the program so they do not burn out from the pressure of the work.
  • Collaboration and integration: Projects that collaborate and integrate with existing youth services show better outcomes for young people. These services include schools, employment services, juvenile justice and youth diversion programs, youth centres, counselling services and other programs working with young people.
  • Learning and evaluation: Successful programs adapt as they progress. Regular evaluation provides an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the program, solve problems and make changes. A good evaluation process documents evidence of the program’s success which can help to convince governments and other funders that the program is effective and a good investment.

Safety and trauma: Strategies to prevent and minimise any potential harm to young people’s wellbeing are essential. Projects should have a safety plan which includes strategies for dealing with issues like disclosure of abuse and crises. Ongoing and appropriate training, supervision and support for staff also helps to ensure that high level responses can be made.

Further reading

Key resources



Pathways to Healing by Jenna Lee

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