In focus: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities have remained connected to their culture, kinship and Country for over 60,000 years. There is much that practitioners can learn from this wisdom that can help support all families and children.

For non-Indigenous practitioners to succeed as allies with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and children, they have a responsibility to consider the relevant healing practices for the families they support. If we are to break the dominant discourse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living away from their families, practitioners must embrace the principles of self-determination and recognise, understand and embed cultural healing practices in the support they provide.

Our children are 9.7 times more likely to be living away from their families than non-Indigenous children – an over-representation that has increased consistently over the last 10 years. It is time to completely change this broken system that is not working for our kids.’ (Hunter, 2020).

Social and emotional wellbeing

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context that encompasses mental, physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality is defined as at the core of being – their very identity. Spirituality gives meaning to all aspects of life, including relationships with one another and the environment. There is a kinship with the environment: all objects are living and share the same soul and spirit (Grant, 2004).

The following Emerging Minds video (three minutes, 26 seconds) shares the story of the ‘whole’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child – the story of what communities want for their children, to keep them happy, healthy and connected.

In the Australian health and welfare context, an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concepts is particularly important for practitioners. The skills and knowledge required by non-Indigenous practitioners who work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families should be supported by an appreciation of the richness and nuance of First Nations cultures, and a willingness to hear and understand their stories.

When listening of the narratives that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples share, practitioners should aim to look behind the ‘problem story’ and explore culturally based practices – such as storytelling and extended relationships of Country, kinship, and Community – to better support the needs of families. First Nations children with a strong cultural identity are well placed to make positive social connections and feel a sense of belonging to their Community.

To learn more about social and emotional wellbeing, consider completing the Emerging Minds e-learning course Working with First Nations families and children: A framework for understanding.

Relationships and connections are central to any engagement within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Relationships matter

The highly crisis-driven nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mainstream service experience epitomises a lack of genuine long-term relationships between non-Indigenous practitioners and First Nations clients. There is a need for practitioners to listen to communities and develop services that are welcoming, inclusive and non-threatening – enabling an understanding of the lived experiences of the families and communities the services are designed to support.

Not having this understanding can be a hindrance to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, can reinforce a history of marginalisation, and can deny First Nations people the opportunity to tell their stories.

Relationships and connections are central to any engagement within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A professional and personal commitment to learning and building relationships is the most important and fundamental step in engaging and working respectfully and effectively with First Nations children, families and communities. And learning starts with listening.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will also want to know you as a person. The kinds of things they may be considering about you might include:

  • Is this someone who will respect the different cultural understanding I bring?
  • Is this someone who will support me without judgment?
  • Is this someone who recognises my history and experiences?

In the following video (45 seconds), Aboriginal Elder Rose Rigney talks about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families access services – and how listening is the first step towards building relationships.

Understanding intergenerational trauma

Colonisation and subsequent policies, such as the forced removal of children, have had devastating consequences on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families. The disruption of culture and the negative impacts on the cultural identity of First Nations peoples have had lasting negative effects, passed from generation to generation (Healing Foundation, 2013). Trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people requires careful consideration from a social and emotional wellbeing perspective.

In the following podcast excerpt (41 seconds), Carlie Atkinson speaks about the loss of safety and the impact of intergenerational trauma on families and children.

Caroline Atkinson

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have experienced great suffering and trauma due to colonisation and subsequent policies. They understand hardship. They have also experienced social service systems that are unhelpful, offer false promises, or are inherently racist. It is important that practitioners make every effort not to replicate this, but instead are willing to be compassionate, direct, honest and clear with families.

For practitioners to truly engage with communities and families in this work, it is important to be able to have hope and belief in the people they work with, and their ability to achieve positive change and safety. Listening to the narratives of families can help practitioners to understand these historical hurts, in order to provide better practice and service responses – giving depth and meaning to concepts such as self-determination and intergenerational trauma.

For practitioners to truly engage with communities and families in this work, it is important to be able to have hope and belief in the people they work with, and their ability to achieve positive change and safety.

Healing through strength-based, hope-inspired practice

When faced with stories of hardship, hopes and strengths are at times overlooked by practitioners – yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are multi-storied, with narratives of resistance to the dominating story of disadvantage. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents come to services amidst many adversities and challenges, practitioners may stop listening for signs of hope and strength that can reinforce children’s safety.

Practitioners using a strengths-based and hope-inspiring approach, characterised by curiosity and respect, are more likely to listen and enquire about the skills, strengths and know-how that parents and families have drawn-on in response to hardship. A strengths-based and hope-inspiring approach is possible even where parents are behaving in ways that make their children feel scared or insecure.

Once parents can recognise their own stories of skills, strengths and know-how, these can be copied and repeated, and a blueprint for safe and nurturing care of children can be developed. These stories can contain rich descriptions of how parents and children have overcome problems – and practitioners can therefore become interested not only in historical adversity, disadvantage or trauma, but also intergenerational stories of capacity, resilience and contribution. Creating the opportunity for parents to tell their stories is the most important step in helping them to understand the impacts of historical and complex trauma on their relationships with their children.

Creating the opportunity for parents to tell their stories is the most important step in helping them to understand the impacts of historical and complex trauma on their relationships with their children.

Resources

References

Grant, E. K. (2004). Unseen, unheard, unspoken: Exploring the relationship between Aboriginal spirituality and community development (pp 8–9). Adelaide: University of South Australia.

Healing Foundation. (2013). Growing our children up strong and deadly: Healing for children and young people. Canberra: Healing Foundation. Available here.

Hunter, S. A. (2020). The family matters report 2020. Melbourne: Family Matters. Available here.

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