Trauma can occur following exposure to experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. Trauma can affect a person for varying lengths of time, and impact on them in many ways. Common symptoms of trauma include fear, anxiety, difficulty with relationships, impulsive behaviours, and feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and confusion.

Traumatic events do not need to be experienced directly to affect individuals. People can experience trauma by being exposed to other people who have unresolved trauma, witnessing traumatic incidents, by trauma being passed down through generations, or experienced within a community.

Traumatic events can be one off or involve a series of distressing experiences over time. Trauma can compound, and people might experience overlapping or interrelated traumatic incidents.

For First Nations communities the trauma of colonisation can stem from:

  • conflicts, massacres, and frontier violence
  • dispossession of traditional lands and loss of access to resources
  • introduced diseases and starvation
  • destruction of Indigenous forms of governance, leadership, and community organisation
  • undermining of traditional identity, spirituality, language, and cultural practices
  • control under ‘protection’ acts, including the lack of autonomy over where one could live, work, or who they could marry
  • labour exploitation, including stolen wages
  • forced removal of children from their families, communities, Country, and culture
  • institutionalisation
  • breakdown of healthy patterns of individual, family, and community life
  • deaths in custody
  • ongoing discrimination and racism.

Telling Our Stories – Our Stolen Generations – Michael Welsh

How does trauma impact people?

Responses to trauma vary widely. They can include intense fear, anxiety, helplessness, guilt, anger, and horror. In children trauma may manifest as disorganised or agitated behaviour.

There is consensus in the field of trauma research that people ‘who are exposed to traumatic events also experience psychological and physical health problems.’ Research has shown that Stolen Generations survivors and their descendants are more likely to experience negative social and emotional wellbeing and health outcomes than other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and are more likely to live with social disadvantage across a range of indicators.

Complex trauma can have devastating impacts on people’s lives. Complex trauma happens when a child or young person experiences repeated or prolonged trauma – for example the multiple and overlapping traumas experienced by children who were forcibly removed. Exposure to complex trauma can alter a person’s brain, enlarging the amygdala – the body’s flight or fight centre – meaning people with unresolved complex trauma are often in a heightened state of physiological responsiveness. This can create high levels of cortisol in the body and causes a number of chronic health conditions.

People who experienced this kind of trauma as children often struggle with identity, healthy relationships, self-reliance, coping mechanisms, and belonging. Because of this they are psychologically vulnerable, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, further entrenching the likelihood of poor health outcomes and social disadvantage.

Research has shown that there are similarities in how trauma manifests for colonised peoples around the world. This can include alcohol and substance abuse, interpersonal violence, homelessness, physical illness, interactions with legal systems, and disruption in meaningful social relations. High suicide rates have been linked to the cultural disruption caused by colonisation, as has lateral, family, and sexual violence. When individuals, families, and communities have not had the opportunity to heal, they can act out their pain in negative ways.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, colonisation and subsequent policies have created unresolved trauma which has been passed down from generation to generation. Although this directly contributes to the social and health disadvantages, the influence of unresolved trauma is often overlooked in policy and practice.

Intergenerational trauma

Intergenerational trauma involves the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next. When people don’t have the opportunity to authentically heal from trauma,  they can pass it on to others around them, including their children.

Children whose parents are experiencing trauma may have difficulties with attachment, can be disconnected from their wider family and culture, and have high levels of stress and distress from family and community members who are experiencing the impacts of trauma. They may lack a sense of identity and belonging, which can create health and social issues, and a cycle of trauma that repeats with the next generation.

Recognising and addressing intergenerational trauma is central to healing for First Nations people, both in Australia and elsewhere. In Australia, intergenerational trauma predominately affects the children and grandchildren of the Stolen Generations. The history of forced removals, policies such as assimilation, socially sanctioned racism, violence, discrimination, and grief over the loss of land and culture, have all contributed to intergenerational trauma.

The cumulative effect of historical and intergenerational trauma can severely impact the capacity of First Nations peoples to fully and positively participate in their lives and communities.

Trauma Aware, Healing Informed

The trauma aware, healing informed approach has been developed to address the high prevalence of trauma amongst First Nations people and support journeys of individual, family, and community healing. It recognises the co-existence of trauma with intergenerational trauma, built within individual and collective experiences of colonialism and racism. It is strengths based and grounded in First Nations ways of knowing, being, and doing. The approach is non-linear and cyclical, reflective of the story and journey of each individual, family, community and Country. In practice, it emphasises cultural, spiritual, physical, psychological, and emotional safety, when engaging with issues of high importance that are likely to be sensitive and triggering of trauma responses. It requires a reflective practice and an awareness of cultural and unconscious bias, privilege, and the ongoing impacts of colonialism.

The principles of a trauma aware, healing informed approach are:

  • Stolen Generations survivors have complex needs related to their experiences of trauma
  • First Nations ways of knowing, being, and doing encompass belonging, (re)connection, collectivity, intergenerational learning, knowledges, and relationships
  • an understanding of and engagement with collective and interconnected trauma and intergenerational trauma experienced by First Nations peoples
  • culture and cultural expression are central to healing
  • strengths based interconnected approaches
  • healing informed is a nonlinear, holistic journey that addresses physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Racism is an ongoing source of trauma.

Key facts provided by The Healing Foundation

References and further reading

Key resources



Pathways to Healing by Jenna Lee

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