How Trauma Flows Through the Generations

‘Our first generations were killed and imprisoned, and females sexually misused. Our second generations turned to alcohol or drugs as their cultural and spiritual identity was damaged; in our third generations we had spousal assault and societal trauma.

In our fourth generations the abuse moves from spousal abuse to child abuse or both. In the fifth generations, the cycle repeats as trauma begats violence, begats trauma. And in our sixth generations the grown children of the conquerors begin to live in fear of the grown children of the conquered.’ Judy Atkinson

The title of Judy Atkinson’s book is particularly well-chosen—trauma leaves trails across the generations. In the quote above, Judy briefly summarises the violence that has been experienced by Aboriginal people, violence that has produced trauma which has become cumulative and more complex across generations. This trauma has impacted upon individuals, families and communities.

Judy goes on to say: “Sociological and psychological conditions are established by the systems and structures that triggered the original trauma in previous generations; these become entrenched in societies and become cultural norms.”

Professor Helen Milroy, an Indigenous psychiatrist specialising in child psychiatry, describes how trauma flows through to Indigenous children:

‘The transgenerational effects of trauma occur via a variety of mechanisms including the impact of attachment relationship with care givers; the impact on parenting and family functioning; the association with parental physical and mental illness; disconnection and alienation from the extended family, culture and society.

These effects are exacerbated by exposure to continuing high levels of stress and trauma including multiple bereavements and other losses, the process of vicarious traumatisation where children witness the on-going effects of the original trauma which a parent or care giver has experienced.

Even where children are protected from the traumatic stories of their ancestors, the effects of past traumas still impact on children in the form of ill health, family dysfunction, community violence, psychological morbidity and early mortality.’

> ‘Ruby’s Story’: Marion Kickett