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Learning about intergenerational trauma can help us see how events of our shared past continue to impact many Indigenous people today.

Have you ever heard the term 'intergenerational trauma'? Not understanding what intergenerational trauma is and how it can impact individuals, families and communities can leave many people wondering why Indigenous Australians can’t just “get over it” and “move on”.

Learning about intergenerational trauma can help us see how events of our shared past continue to impact many Indigenous people today, and can shed light on the complexity of the situation in many Indigenous families and communities.


So what's intergenerational trauma?

Trauma is generally understood as a person’s response to a major catastrophic event that's so overwhelming it leaves that person unable to come to terms with it.[1] In some cases, trauma is passed down from the first generation of survivors who directly experienced or witnessed traumatic events to future generations.[2] This is referred to as intergenerational trauma, and can be passed on through parenting practices, behavioural problems, violence, harmful substance use and mental health issues.[3]

Why and how does intergenerational trauma affect Indigenous Australians?

Indigenous people in Australia have experienced trauma as a result of colonisation, including the associated violence and loss of culture and land, as well as subsequent policies such as the forced removal of children. In many Indigenous families and communities, this trauma continues to be passed from generation to generation with devastating effects. Research shows that people who experience trauma are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours, develop life-style diseases and enter and remain in the criminal justice system.

The high rates of poor physical health, mental health problems, addiction, incarceration, domestic violence, self harm and suicide in Indigenous communities are directly linked to experiences of trauma. These issues are both results of historical trauma and causes of new instances of trauma which together can lead to a vicious cycle in Indigenous communities.[4]


“That’s how they (the government) controlled you... We just didn’t have any rights whatsoever really, living on those communities.”

Iris' story

To this day, events of her past deeply impact Iris. When she was 12, Iris, her mother and siblings were taken from their home and made to live in the community on Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve. They were only given two days' notice. Iris' father, who was working out of town at the time, came home to find his family gone. The experience changed Iris' life forever.

"That's what they (the government) used to do and that’s what they did to us as a family... Just expected to accept it because you're under the act of the Queensland Government”

Life in Cherbourg community was highly controlled. When she turned 15, Iris was sent to Brisbane to work as a domestic helper, far from her family and friends. Iris worked in that home for years. Because the government didn't consider Indigenous people capable of managing their own money, Iris was paid only a fraction of the wages she earned, while the majority of her earnings went to the Queensland Government.

To this day, despite her efforts to recover that money, Iris has never seen the majority of the wages she earned during those years.

“That’s how they (the government) controlled you... We just didn’t have any rights whatsoever really, living on those communities.”

These experiences have caused Iris and her family ongoing pain and distress. Just imagine someone taking your partner and kids away without warning. How would you feel? Who would you turn to for help if the government was responsible? Could you ever really get over this experience? How would you feel if your own mother or grandmother had been treated like this?

Stories like Iris' are heartbreakingly common amongst Indigenous Australians. Iris is one of thousands of Indigenous people who were subject to harsh and degrading treatment and policies. Fortunately, Iris and her family continue to process and deal with this experience in positive ways. In some instances, experiences like Iris' have resulted in entrenched intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities.


The cycle of trauma

Secondary exposure to trauma for Indigenous children can occur 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. What's more, many children and youth in Indigenous communities experience trauma directly in response to exposure to family violence, child abuse and neglect and substance misuse, which is often a result of the original trauma experienced by a parent or care giver.

Speaking about the historical trauma her family experienced through massacre, dispossession, slavery, rape and violence on missions, an Indigenous woman from the Kimberley in Western Australia explains:

“How can anyone forget that? And why should we forget? We pass it on to our kids just like my parents passed it onto me. It stays with you ’til you die. I’ve seen pain all my life… How are they going to get [out] of those memories? Us old ones can’t forget our memories. How do we expect the little ones to forgive and forget? What those little ones are going through is adding to the bad memories we’ve given them from our stories.” [5]

What's being done about intergenerational trauma?

Many attempts have been made to address the effects of intergenerational trauma through education, employment, health, housing and, unfortunately, incarceration. While investment in some of these services and programs is important, without first addressing the healing needs of families and communities, such interventions are likely to have limited impact.[6] It’s critical that healing programs have an emphasis on restoring, reaffirming and renewing a sense of pride in cultural identity, connection to country and participation in community.[7]

Evidence suggests that overcoming trauma is more likely if:

  • Communities are supported and empowered to identify their own problems and take control of their own healing
  • Programs use cultural knowledge
  • Programs build cultural awareness and a positive sense of identity[8]
  • It’s critical that healing programs have an emphasis on restoring, reaffirming and renewing a sense of pride in cultural identity, connection to country and participation in community.

What can I do?

It’s important to view the disadvantage and dysfunction experienced by some Indigenous communities in the context of intergenerational trauma. Having traumatic events acknowledged and honoured by the wider Australian community can help contribute to healing the wounds of the past for Indigenous people.