Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children who are placed in care may have witnessed or experienced high levels of stress or trauma. Children who have been exposed to trauma can behaviour differently.
As a carer, identifying the emotions and behaviours in a child that are related to their experiences of trauma is important. It will assist the carer to have a better understanding of why the child behaves as they do. It will also guide the carer to seek the assistance needed to support the child on their journey of healing.
The following information on trauma is general background written for the carer. It will help a carer learn about childhood trauma and gain insight into how this affects a child’s behavior and how to assist the child to heal from their trauma. A carer, supported by community and healing services, can be influential in a child’s healing journey. Healing a child’s trauma is essential for them to have a positive life.
The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation
–Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2013
What is trauma?
Trauma is a normal human response to an event or series of events that causes severe psychologically stress. Sometimes the trauma felt can have an adverse affect on a person’s physical, spiritual and emotional state. People can respond to the same event or experience differently but a traumatic response will generally cause feelings of intense fear, confusion, helplessness or horror.
Trauma can be experienced:
- by people of all ages
- at a personal and family level and by a whole community
- as a one off event or repeatedly in an environment
- over a period of time through repeated exposure to stressful events or harmful relationships
- over a number of generations
The distress that results from trauma can have an adverse affect on a child’s emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical health and wellbeing. When these harmful emotions are not recognised, and healed, they will stay with the child and can be triggered by other events throughout the child’s life. This is likely to interfere with their development, wellbeing and happiness.
Home, family, culture and community connections and experiences influence how a child’s brain and emotions develop – both positively and negatively. A child will grow strong in a caring, predictable and stimulating environment.
Childhood / Developmental trauma
“Childhood trauma has the potential to interrupt the normal physical, physiological, emotional, mental and intellectual development, of children and can have wide-ranging, and often life-long implications for their health and wellbeing.”
– Van der Kolk, 2007
A child who witnesses or lives with prolonged exposure to violence, abuse, neglect or poverty is likely to experience stress levels that causes childhood or developmental trauma.
Childhood trauma can impair brain development that affects a child’s wellbeing, their ability to reach growth milestones, to learn and enjoy school, make friends and connect with family and community.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children mainly experience trauma by their exposure to trans-generational trauma and/or inter-generational trauma within their family and community. Living with people experiencing trauma can also trigger high levels of stress in children.
Types of trauma
There are several different types of trauma. The types of trauma that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are most likely to experience are:
- Trans-generational trauma
- Inter-generational trauma
- Toxic stress
Trans-generational trauma occurs when the grief and loss from one generation is passed to future generations. Over time, layers of trauma experienced by people and a community build up and this has a negative impact on people and their community. Colonisation, the Stolen Generation and racist policies and practices are examples of historical events that have caused trans-generational trauma. The impact of these events are still being felt by families and communities today.
Inter-generational trauma is the trauma that a person carries through their life and passes onto their next generation of family. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults pass their trauma onto their children, grandchildren and kinship group, inter-generational trauma is happening. Often children experience inter-generational trauma by observing or experiencing the pain of destructive behaviours within their family.
“Toxic stress in children—stemming from abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, and/or the stresses of poverty—is a risk to healthy development and its underlying brain function and may increase the risk of a variety of chronic diseases later in life”
– Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2013
Throughout life a person learns how to cope with stress and this is an important part of a child’s development. When a child feels stress in a supportive and safe environment their stress levels can return to normal without causing them long-term harm.
When a child is repeatedly exposed or experiences stressful events, especially in an environment that is not supportive or safe, they can feel extreme stress – this is called ‘toxic stress’.
A child’s toxic stress will be triggered by frequent or prolonged exposure to things such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, family and community violence, poverty or family hardship. The likelihood of a child experiencing toxic stress increases when they do not have someone they trust to care and protect them.
Childhood experiences of trauma
It is important to be mindful that when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child experiences trauma this may stem from being exposed to trans-generational or inter-generational trauma within their family and community. Witnessing this can affect a child’s physical, emotional and neurological development. It can interfere with their ability to form good relationships, their sense of self and cultural identity, their ability to form good coping strategies and their chance of reaching their potential.
Trauma often leads to a sense of shame and withdrawal, aggression and self-destructive behaviours. A child living with trauma can feel disconnected and disengaged from people, family and community. Often this will lead to a child developing destructive behaviours such as, being physically or emotionally violent and abusive, self-harming, or using substances that lead to addiction and criminal actions. Sometimes these behaviours are ‘mirrored’ or learnt from people around them.
Identifying trauma in children
Watching and observing a child’s behaviour and how they relate and connect to the people and things around them is key in identifying if a child has experienced trauma in their life.
A child living with trauma can be withdrawn, aggressive and use self-destructive or harming behaviours. They may also have a strong feeling of shame. A carer may feel that the child has difficultly forming a sense of attachment or trust within the family.
It is important to recognise when a child’s behaviour is caused by trauma – this allows the carer to understand and respond to their child without blaming or shaming the child. It also allows the carer to seek support and services to help the child on their healing journey.
Every child will experience and response to trauma differently – below are a few clear signs to look for. When a carer sees these signs, it is important to raise them with the child’s support team and their supervisor.
Emotional and psychological signs of trauma
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Guilt, shame, self blame
- Anxiety and fear
- Disconnection from people and their environment
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Confusion, has trouble focusing and concentrating
- Disengaged, withdrawn from others
- Low self esteem and cultural identity
Physical signs of trauma
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Aches and pains
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
Some of these signs are associated with other causes and childhood illness so it is worthwhile also speaking to the doctor.
Healing to us is a spiritual understanding of self, identity, love, belonging, family, security, hurt, heartache, good times and laughter. But mostly Healing is a grasp for hope and acceptance based on love and respect, of understanding of ourselves, our supports and being able to tell “our” stories.
– Red Dust Healing website
Healing from trauma is a journey that occurs over time and at a personal, cultural and community level. Healing a child gives them the chance to have a happier life and also help break the cycle of inter-generational trauma.
The essential elements in a child’s healing journey involves building:
- a sense of belonging to family and community
- connection to culture and spiritual traditions and cultural pride
- trust in family and Elders
- resilience and sense of hope in the future
- confidence to engage with healing programs and services
A child needs support and motivation from their carer, family and community to start and continue their journey of healing. A child’s healing journey should include cultural and social activities that encourage creative and emotional thinking and a trust in others and themselves. These activities provide connection and learning at a cultural and appropriate developmental level that is key to a child’s healing journey and in building their resilience, hope, a belief in self and an inspiration to achieve.
Healing services for children
“Aboriginal caregiving should be viewed as a whole-of-life experience and be seen in the context of an individual nested within their family, and in their community. Caregiving includes all of the social, emotional and cultural support that enhances the wellbeing of an individual, family and the community”
– Wright, 2008
Trauma specific care and practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aim to help workers understand the emotional and developmental impacts of trauma on a child. This understanding is key to a child’s healing journey, through building their resilience and hope, their social emotional well-being and their belief in the future.
Trauma specific care services for children will also provide care and healing practices that are age appropriate and integrate cultural and spiritual healing practises. Interventions that assist a child’s healing are those that combine knowledge of brain and child development, strengthen their connection to family and community, and increase a child’s cultural and spiritual identity.
Child specific trauma care services should invite and encourage the child and carer to participate in planning a child’s healing. This helps create an accepting, friendly, culturally enriching and safe emotional space where a child feels respected and valued, and will allow them to develop trust in the adults guiding them through their healing journey.
Healing children and the carer’s role
Recognising when a child has experienced trauma is an essential first step to assist a child recover from their trauma and restore their spirit. A child’s trauma can be healed with family and community support and access to trauma-specific child services where needed.
A carer is not expected to have the professional skills to heal a child’s trauma. A child’s healing needs to happen within a safe and caring environment and to be supported by cultural engagement and appropriate community and/or clinical services. Carers, by providing a safe home and loving environment, give the child the foundation for them to start their healing journey, to engage in community healing and professional services if needed.
A fundamental aspect of healing is to provide a stable, caring and predictable family environment where a child feels connected and has a sense of belonging. This will provide a strong foundation for a child’s sense of safety and security.
Carers should seek support from cultural healing services and community support services. A caring environment and appropriate community healing and wellbeing services is a powerful combination that will support a child’s healing. Healing can also be a creative process as often carers have to think ‘outside the square’ to come up with ways that work with their child and within their family. Aboriginal games and cultural activities are a great way to engage children, have fun and involve family.
A carer should also speak to the child’s pre-school or school. Staff working with a child affected by trauma should be informed as this will assist them to better understand the child’s learning needs and behavior. If required, a school can develop a special education plan for the child that will support the child’s healing. Schools also have access to specialised professionals and additional learning assistance programs.
Carers can be hopeful about supporting a child’s healing. A stable, caring home combined with good programs and services can help heal the damaging effects of the child’s past trauma and help them build the skills to manage future stress in their lives.
Resilience and hope
Since colonisation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have suffered extreme levels of adversity. By surviving practices such as separation from family, discriminative policy and removal from Country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have demonstrated high levels of resilience and strength in culture and tradition.
An important part of healing is developing a child’s resilience. Resilience is a person’s inner strength and ability to manage stressful or traumatic events. Positive or tolerable stress are part of everyone’s lives and are important experiences to help build a child’s resilience and skills to manage future life events.
Developing resilience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is important. It will assist them to heal from the trauma that they may have experienced and give them skills to manage future hardships.
A child’s resilience develops over time and there is no ‘quick fix’. When a child has a sense of belonging to family and culture, they can develop the insight into their behaviour that will help develop their resilience. This insight helps a child to manage behaviours related to their trauma and other stressful events.
Developing a child’s resilience will also lead to a greater sense of hope. A sense of hope is key for a child to improve their overall social and emotional wellbeing and belief in their own worth and future.
“Strong individuals and strong families are central to strong and resilient communities. We need to work towards protecting ourselves and each other. In this way we can respect those who came before us and those who are yet to come.”
– Nellie Green, 2009
Care for the carer
“Caregivers protect the vulnerable and the dependent … they offer cognitive, behavioural, and emotional support … because caregiving is so tiring, and emotional draining, effective caregiving requires that caregivers themselves receive practical and emotional support”
– Klienman, 2009.
Caring and supporting a child living with trauma can be hard work and exhausting. Healing and building a child’s recovery from trauma takes time, trust, resilience and patience. The calm and consistent caring needed to support a child’s healing can also be draining. For a career to stay healthy and strong they should reach out to cultural, community and clinical support networks. These connections will also guide and encourage the carer as they share the child’s healing journey.
A carer needs to be mindful of their own resilience and sense of hopefulness – these are key to a carer staying strong to support the child in their healing journey. There are ideas and tips on self-care in the Looking After Yourself section.
Anyone can experience trauma. No one is immune. It is possible for someone to be traumatised even when they are not directly involved in the traumatic event. This can happen when someone in a person’s family or community has been traumatised.
People involved in a child’s healing journey will be exposed to stories and feelings that can cause an emotional response or may trigger their own past trauma. This response is called vicarious trauma.
A carer is especially open to experiencing vicarious trauma. When this happens, it is important that the carer talks to their supervisor or the child’s support worker who can link the carer into their own support services.
- Healing in Practice – promising practises in Healing Programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Families
The Healing Foundation resources: