How trauma affects Aboriginal life

First Nations peoples' trauma is often transgenerational and deeply affects every aspect of their lives. What is trauma and where does it come from?

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What is trauma?

Definition: Trauma

Dictionaries define trauma as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience and an emotional response to a terrible event or natural disaster. The event overwhelms an individual's ability to cope.

Who is affected by trauma varies a lot and there are no objective criteria to evaluate which events cause trauma. Therefore, trauma is defined more by its response than its trigger.

What causes trauma?

To better understand Aboriginal trauma we need to look at what causes trauma first.

A traumatic event does not need to be extreme as war, a natural disaster or personal assault. Many other events can affect a person profoundly and alter their experiences.

Our physiology does not differentiate between social and physical pain. Any event you find physically or emotionally threatening or harmful can cause trauma, as can physical harm or injury, either directly or indirectly.

Events typically involve the loss of control, betrayal, abuse of power, helplessness, pain, confusion and loss.

Types of trauma

Experts distinguish several types of trauma.

  • Bullying & harassment. When other people are bullying you, their actions are deliberate and unsolicited and intended to cause social, emotional, physical or psychological harm. Often, these people consider you to be less powerful.
  • Community violence. If members of your community who are not intimately related to you are violent towards you in public, it is called community violence.
  • Complex trauma. This category is used for cases where you survived multiple traumatic events (often invasive and from another person) and are dealing with the long-term (and often wide-ranging) effects of these events.
  • Disasters. Natural disasters include hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, tsunamis, and floods, as well as extreme weather events such as blizzards, droughts, extreme heat, and wind storms.
  • Early childhood trauma. This kind of trauma generally refers to events that happen when you are less than seven years old.
  • Domestic violence. This is also referred to as Intimate Partner Violence and happens when your current or past partner purposely causes you, or threatens you with, harm.
  • Physical abuse. If someone causes you a physical injury it is called physical abuse.
  • Psychological abuse. This type of abuse happens when someone manipulates or threatens you but does not physically harm you.
  • Refugee trauma. Many displaced people, especially children, experience trauma related to war or persecution that can affect their mental and physical health long after the events have occurred.
  • Sexual abuse. If someone uses you to get sexual stimulation or gratification, or rapes you, they are sexually abusing you. This also applies to observers.
  • Traumatic grief. After a death you might have ongoing difficulties that interfere with everyday life and make it difficult to recall positive memories of your loved ones. Traumatic grief is also likely if too many deaths happen over a short time period.
  • Secondary trauma. This is also called vicarious trauma and relates to a person who develops trauma symptoms from close contact with someone who has experienced a traumatic event. These persons are usually family members, but can also be carers or health professionals.
  • Historical trauma. When traumatic experiences or events are shared by a group of people within a society, or even by an entire community, ethnic, or national group, we speak of historical trauma. Its characteristics are widespread effects, collective suffering, and malicious intent. The term is based on studies of traumas of the colonisation, relocation, and assimilation of the American First Peoples who share many parallels with Australia's First Peoples.
  • Systemic or institutional trauma. Also known as institutional betrayal, this type of trauma occurs when an institution (often a government agency) worsens someone's traumatic experience with its actions or inaction. With institutional trauma, the context of these actions or inaction is relevant.

You can be traumatised by a single occurrence of such an event, multiple or repeated events.

Causes of trauma in the Aboriginal context

Now that you know some basic types of trauma, here are some events that happened in the past which are likely to have caused one or more of these to Aboriginal people:

  • Northern Territory intervention. Almost overnight the military invaded Aboriginal communities and restricted what people could do. Many found themselves accused of neglect or distributing pornography.
  • Frontier wars. Far from "colonising" Australia, the British fought many wars across Australia with Aboriginal people defending their ancient lands and protecting their families, communities and sacred sites.
  • Stolen Generations. One of the worst government policies was the removal of Aboriginal children of mixed descent to make them "white" citizens.
  • Stolen wages. Aboriginal workers were forced to have their salaries managed by government authorities, but often found that their lifetime savings had been misused and stolen from them.
  • Loss of Country. Aboriginal peoples' deep connection to Country was severed when the British occupied these lands and pushed traditional custodians further and further away or forcefully removed them.
  • Capture and abuse of women. On farms and missions many Aboriginal women were sexually abused and sometimes kept as sex slaves.
  • Deaths in custody and communities. Aboriginal inmates continue to die disproportionally compared to non-Aboriginal prisoners. Suicide rates in Aboriginal communities are excessively high and impact everyone.
  • Domestic violence. Unable to cope, some Aboriginal families experience domestic violence which affects especially children.
  • Government neglect. Governments do not prioritise areas of Aboriginal lives which are in crisis, can suddenly shut down successful programs, and deliver unsuitable or blanket solutions.
  • Discrimination and racism. For many Aboriginal people racism is a daily experience, especially in sport or with the authorities (e.g. police).

Based on history, it is unlikely that future governments resolve much of the above causes, making trauma part of the lives of future generations – trauma is transferred.

Transgenerational trauma

Definition: Transgenerational trauma

Transgenerational trauma is also called inter- or multigenerational trauma. It is defined as trauma that gets passed down (transfers) to younger generations from those who directly experience a traumatic event.

Such events can affect an individual, multiple family members, or larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups. How exactly trauma gets transferred to the next generation is still not well understood.

When family members are unable to process and mourn their many losses, their children sometimes act out the incomplete mourning journey. These descendants might live in two worlds at the same time: their own reality and the unprocessed state of their ancestors. They might even feel just as scared and vulnerable to persecution. The trauma continues across generations, it has become transgenerational.

Family members can also pass on trauma through parenting practices (e.g. neglect or expecting children to comfort them emotionally), behavioural problems, violence, harmful substance use and mental health issues.

Scientific research shows that traumatic experiences can become incorporated into our genes and change us biologically (potentially via heritable epigenomic changes) and increase the risk of mental health problems. As genes are passed on, so is the trauma, what researchers call the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

Over many generations, adverse childhood experiences wire the brain for how you react to stress, setting a default position, deeply embedded in the amygdala. This ancient part of our brain reacts super fast, and if triggered, bypasses any other areas of the brain.

Video: Intergenerational trauma animation

In this four-minute video, the Healing Foundation, a service that helps Aboriginal people heal from trauma and improve their health, explains where Aboriginal transgenerational trauma comes from.


Transgenerational trauma not only affects Australian Aboriginal people. Other groups include Holocaust survivors, Asian Americans and many other indigenous groups across the world.

Transgenerational trauma in Aboriginal lives

Jim Morrison, Aboriginal co-chair of the National Stolen Generations Alliance, explains how Aboriginal people have come to suffer from transgenerational trauma.

Morrison says that in the first generation of Aboriginal people after colonisation "Aboriginal men and boys were killed, imprisoned, enslaved, driven away and deprived of the ability to provide for their families. Women became single parents and many children were conceived through rape and forced prostitution."

In the second generation, "Aboriginal people were rounded up and sent to missions and reserves where they were further removed from being able to obtain work, balanced diets, housing, sanitation, health care and education. This is the stage that the misuse of alcohol and drugs became embedded as a mechanism for coping with grief and the profound loss of dignity."

In the third generation, "Aboriginal children were removed from their fractured families and placed into non-Indigenous care environments where they suffered the horrors of forced inferiority, deprivation and abuse, documented for all to read in the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families in April 1997. The majority of these children became parents without exposure to parenting and therefore the opportunity to develop parenting skills."

The government created a fourth generation in 2007 with the Northern Territory intervention which added another level of trauma, especially to Aboriginal men who were wrongfully suspected to be members of paedophile rings.

All of these experiences add to an onion-like layer of grief and trauma: Stolen land, lost language, lost customs, stolen children, incarceration, and the list goes on.

The loss pain and suffering we have caused this group of people over the past 200 years is so deep and so profound that even with the combined will of parliament we have not even begun to shift the dial.

— Lockie Harris, staffer to former prime minister Kevin Rudd

Story: Four generations of suffering

Nakkiah Lui is an Aboriginal actor, writer, comedian and young leader born in the 1990s. As she recalls the experiences of her ancestors she travels through four generations of trauma.

"I'm an Aboriginal woman in her 20s who cruises dating websites, but it’s only four generations back that my family felt the direct consequences of foreigners invading our land.

"There's my great-great grandmother, who survived a massacre; my great grandfather, who was forced back to the mission after his father died and wasn't allowed to own land; my grandfather, who was given 'dog tags' dictating he was an 'honorary white man' after he returned from being a prisoner of war in World War II; [and] my mother, who was encouraged to not finish high school because she was Aboriginal."

Reverend Graham Paulson, an Aboriginal Ministry Elder from Brisbane, QLD, has experienced transgenerational trauma first-hand:

"What gets passed down is the enormous hurt and disorientation that comes from losing one's land, losing one's identity, losing one's goal and purpose in life. And this is passed down from my grand-parents to my parents and from my parents to me. And so I had to deal with this disquiet and dysfunction that I couldn't explain."

A report by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, Children Living in Households With Members of the Stolen Generations, confirmed a direct transfer of trauma and poverty between the Stolen Generations and their children and descendants.

The report found that these children missed school more, experienced greater discrimination for being Aboriginal, had higher levels of stress, lower health, and lived in a household with financial problems.

From a purely scientific perspective, passing on traumatic memories has the benefit of informing younger generations without them having to experience the trauma again. Unable to forget, but able to pass on.

"How can anyone forget that? And why should we forget?" asks an Aboriginal woman from the Kimberley (WA), referring to the historical trauma her family experienced through massacre, dispossession, slavery, rape and violence on missions.

"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."

Bundajung woman Professor Judy Atkinson, who has worked on the intergenerational and transgenerational transmission of trauma, argues that many of the problems in Aboriginal communities, be it alcohol abuse, mental health problems, family violence or criminal behaviour, are symptomatic of the effects of this unresolved trauma reaching into the present day. Other research confirms this view.

When the Indigenous-Aboriginal Party of Australia started to accept community member enrolments to reach the minimum number required to get registered they discovered that many people were not on the electoral roll and thus not eligible to be counted. Upon investigating they found that "many are terrified of any official document that asks for their address. They fear this makes it easier for their kids to be taken away and placed in institutions, or for the police to find them and put a loved one in jail".

Sally Dowling, who in 2019 was a Senior Counsel Assisting at Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug "Ice", says colonisation and dispossession, along with intergenerational trauma and socio-economic disadvantage, continue to contribute to high levels of drug use in Aboriginal communities. According to the Aboriginal Medical Corporation, almost every single ice user has suffered some form of trauma.

There is a high chance that intergenerational trauma locks communities into a cycle that is hard to break out of. "When entire communities experience the same traumas for generations," researchers noted, "the very mechanisms that helped them to cope become destroyed in the process. The whole group becomes frozen in time and the collective narratives become post-traumatic."


There is no evidence that victims of trauma, bereavement or loss ever achieve "closure". But over time they might get better and better at managing their triggers and trauma.

Everyone says there is nothing [like ice] that will numb the pain and take the grief and loss away.

— Warren Field, substance abuse counsellor, Nowra Aboriginal Medical Corporation

Is there a historic trauma chain?

The three fleets that arrived in Australia between 1788 and 1791 not only carried hopeful settlers, but also doomed convicts. Those were sent away from their home country under the harsh British military law. Treatment on board of the ships was equally bad, with the second fleet notorious for its "cruelty and mistreatment" of the convicts and nicknamed "Death Fleet".

Upon arriving in Australia life didn't improve much – a young settlement with lots of problems and challenges where convicts were at the bottom of the pecking order.

Could it be that trauma travelled all the way from Britain to Australia and shaped today's Australian society? The convicted became prisoners who were forced to travel to Australia where they imbued their own trauma on the First Peoples by mistreating and abusing them. The travellers became settlers and the forbears of present day authorities, and the trauma still appears to reside below the surface, rearing its head in each racist incident and police brutality.

Towards healing trauma

To help Aboriginal people heal from trauma, programs, organisations and workplaces should implement what is called a "trauma-informed approach". In this approach you

  • Realise the widespread prevalence of trauma and and how it can affect people and groups;
  • Recognise the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  • Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Resist to re-traumatise a person.

In this approach you do not need to address the consequences of trauma or try to heal them – that is, you don't need to intervene or treat a person. For example, offering a safe place and peer support is a good start.

Drawing on the wisdom of Aboriginal culture can help you to be successful in facilitating healing and recovery. The connection to land, spirituality, community and ancestry can help Aboriginal people manage their wellbeing.

Recognition of trauma is also important. While the experiences and feelings of victims of accidents, disasters and terrorism are usually validated, trauma victims of other experiences are often repudiated, rejected or blamed (think "just get over it" mentality).

While it might be obvious to wait for the perpetrator to apologise for the trauma they caused, this could take years if the perpetrator was a government or organisation. Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Canadian physician and author who has worked with First Nations people in Canada, suggests therefore to start healing from within: "Don't wait for the acknowledgement from the government or from society 'cause it will take a long time coming, but you need to acknowledge your own suffering. You need to acknowledge your own pain." Using their cultural "wisdom within" as well as rituals can support First Nations to heal independently from external acknowledgements. "That wisdom to heal is there," Gabor says.

The cycle of trauma is not only with the work an Indigenous employee does but the way in which workplaces create barriers for Indigenous employees to do their job.

— Mandy Braddick, Dharawal and Gumea woman, brand manager at IndigenousX

The hurt and trauma that you feel is Canada's responsibility to bear.

— Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, when learning about graves of stolen children

Video: Breaking the cycle of trauma transmission in families

Dr. M. Gerard Fromm, editor of Lost in Transmission, Studies of Trauma Across Generations, and Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA, explains how psychotherapy and family treatment can help enormously to break the cycle of transmission of trauma.


Sharing Culture is a unique initiative to empower Aboriginal people to heal and develop resilience to historical trauma and its consequences.


View article sources (22)

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[5] [5a] 'Understanding Intergenerational Trauma: An Introduction for Clinicians', Good Therapy 8/1/2021,, retrieved 26/8/2021
[6] [6a] [6b] 'Historical Trauma, Race-Based Trauma, and Resilience of Indigenous Peoples: A Literature Review', Elizabeth Fast and Delphine Collin-Vézina, First Peoples Child & Family Review, Volume 14, Number 1, 2019, pp
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[8] 'Intergenerational trauma', Ockham's Razor, ABC, transcript, 18/9/2016
[9] 'Can you make your brain work harder?', SMH 21/3/2021
[10] For a story about Asian Americans, see 'Depression is why I’m writing this. Shame is why I’m writing it under a pseudonym', The Guardian 23/8/2021, available at
[11] 'Missing the target: goodwill fails to overcome entrenched inequalities', SMH 15/2/2020
[12] 'Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration', The Guardian 26/1/2014
[13] 'Australians Together - Sharing Our Story', episode 2,, retrieved 2/10/2016
[14] 'Children living in households with members of the Stolen Generations', ISSN 9781760545369, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 11/6/2019
[15] 'Understanding Intergenerational Trauma', Australians Together,, retrieved 3/10/2016
[16] 'Social Justice Report 2008 - Chapter 4: Beyond the Apology - an agenda for healing', section 2.1 'Historic and intergenerational trauma'
[17] Indigenous-Aboriginal Party of Australia, newsletter 23/12/2021
[18] [18a] [18b] 'The Ice Age destroying families, and Indigenous culture', SMH 2/6/2019
[19] 'Second Fleet (Australia)', Wikipedia, retrieved 28/8/2021
[20] 'The Root Cause of Trauma & Why You Feel Lost in Life - Dr. Gabor Maté & Jay Shetty', podcast, 24/10/2022, available at
[21] 'The cycle of Indigenous trauma continues in the workplace. Diversity policies are not the answer', The Guardian 8/10/2021
[22] 'Hundreds of graves found in old school', SMH 26/6/2021. Canada also has a history of stolen First Nations children which were assimilated in Residential Schools.

Cite this page

Korff, J 2023, How trauma affects Aboriginal life, <>, retrieved 24 July 2024

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