Working and walking alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people: A practical guide for non-Indigenous workers

Judy Atkinson, Margaret Hayes and Caroline (Carlie) Atkinson, Australia, May 2020

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this resource may contain imagery, audio or names of people who have passed away.

Key messages

  • An understanding that it takes time to establish safe and connected relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who experience the effects of generational trauma.
  • Understanding a child’s world is an important step for non-Indigenous practitioners in this work.
  • An understanding of the generational history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and the effects of generational trauma, including the fear of authority, are crucial for non-Indigenous practitioners in developing culturally competent practice.
  • Non-Indigenous practitioners can use their skills and capacities to better understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This can be significantly beneficial in developing safe, trusting and collaborative relationships between practitioner and child.
  • The creative use of story and play is an effective tool in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.
  • The behaviour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is language. It is important that non-Indigenous practitioners can listen and interpret this language in a non-judgmental and safe way.
  • Words and actions are powerful. They can positively change lives or destroy them. Practitioners should take care to use words to develop self-esteem and not to wound an already wounded child.

The term ‘woundedness’ is used to emphasise experiences of deep trauma and the impact they have on the body, mind, soul and spirit of a child. Our responsibility as adults to is provide healing possibilities for all children.

Is this resource for me?

This resource is designed to provide information, concepts, practical skills and suggestions to guide non-Indigenous professionals working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and their families/communities.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families are creative, energetic and embodied within their cultural heritage while involved in the systems, structures and opportunities of contemporary Australia. Some families, however, continue to be held in the pervasive wounding from trauma that has become generational. To fully understand those lives and circumstances, it is necessary to understand and accept the impacts of trauma across generations, without judgement, but with clear insight and intention to use your skills and capacities for healing.

This resource uses stories to highlight both children’s capacity for resilience under painful circumstances and their capacity for compassion beyond what they have experienced from some adults and professional workers. Too often such workers have not yet learnt that behaviour is language (Atkinson, 2019), often a protective cry for help, that can also tell us what is wrong within the broader social circumstances in which the child lives.

The preferred terminology used by Emerging Minds in our resources is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, as guided by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social and Emotional Wellbeing National Consultancy Group.

Developing a context

Any family can have a child with behavioural challenges. However, if every child in the family or a large percentage of children in a regional area are exhibiting behavioural challenges, there are obviously major family vulnerabilities which, through research, may prove to be embedded within a region’s history.

This section builds on the work of Bruce Perry in cultivating the learning brain – regulate, relate, reason (Dobud, 2015); and We Al-li – safety in connection, trusting stories, making sense for self-regulation, grieving losses, and reclaiming cultural and spiritual identities (Atkinson, 2013).

The We Al-li program was designed and developed in central Queensland by Aboriginal people in the mid-1990’s as a response to the generational trauma of their lives. Based on Judy Atkinson’s research, the culturally-informed, trauma-integrated healing program aims to help heal generational trauma.

In reading through this section, non-Indigenous practitioners are asked to consider:

  • how they currently work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in similar situations
  • how a consideration of generational trauma might inform this work
  • what kinds of relationships need to be developed to establish safety, connection and attachment with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
  • how they currently establish trusting and safe relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families
  • how they would like to develop their skills in building trust with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families affected by trauma
  • what practice changes would be needed to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families to express themselves and communicate using play, stories and games.

Generational story mapping

Using a generational story map – from the child, to parents, to grandparents, and so on – you can link individual family and community stories to the history of place. You will begin to see symptom as history, which will allow you have greater understanding and capacity to work in often distressing situations (Atkinson, 2019).

‘The genogram traces one line of a family down the generations, listing the known traumas documented or narrated within the family: sexual violence, being victim of physical violence, perpetrating violence, diagnosed mental illness, suicide attempts and alcohol and/or drug misuse. It is clear that trauma, unacknowledged and unattended to, compounds and compacts, increasing the likelihood of further traumatic events occurring. To name this trauma is not to place blame on previous generations. Acknowledgement of the trauma-lines that run through families and communities provides a context to the pain and the behaviours that articulate that pain, so that people in the present can make more sense of their lived reality. It also provides necessary information to begin the processes of providing services for healing.’ (Atkinson, 2002)


(Brainstem and midbrain – ‘the sensory motor brain’)
‘Help the child to regulate and calm their fear/stress responses (‘fight/flight/freeze’). Offer soothing comfort and reassurance.’ (Perry, 2015; Heller, 2012).

Safety – connection – attachment

The first organising principle for non-Indigenous professionals working with children who have developmental trauma is to establish safety through connection. Children who have experienced trauma are often disconnected from their bodies. They may be fearful of connection with caregivers who display their own trauma behaviours.

‘When asked what they are feeling … they find the question challenging, anxiety-producing, and often impossible to answer.’ (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).

A child may not be able to share their feelings; however, you can help establish safety, so the child feels comfortable in exploring their feelings (e.g. a child can externalise feelings through puppets or role play). You can find various ways to create safety for the child, while making as deep a connection as possible.

Bruce Perry tells the story of being introduced to a child who had been socialised into sexual activity at a very young age. The child tried to make first contact through sexual activity. Perry quickly established clear safe boundaries, reassuring the child of their safety without such activity; then he sat on the floor close to her while they both separately drew. This was the beginning of their therapeutic engagement, through establishing safety and connection (Perry, 2007). Safe rules and attachment were built from this initial activity.

In the following video, watch as Judy describes a situation experienced by co-author Margaret Hayes, in which a child came to school with a large knife, with which he was threatening people. This required the school to go into lockdown.


Having already established a bond, Margaret was able to make connection at this crisis time by:

  • calmly walking close to the child
  • not looking directly at him
  • talking to him without speaking directly to him in his dissociated state, until he began to hear her voice
  • engaging him in conversation until he was ready to turn to face her, and hand her the knife.

Trust – Affiliation

As a worker you will recognise that it is likely that a child’s sense of safety has been broken. The brain stem (reptilian brain) might be engaged in survival – fear, fight, flight, freeze. Anger in fight or aggression in flight may be the default behaviour, without the child understanding why they are fighting or running. This can be a frighting feeling for a child who may not be able to name nor understand the fear that is triggering the behaviour. If you watch the child’s face you will be able to see if the child has moved from fight/flight to dissociation (freeze).

A child can be in dissociation while in flight or fight mode, with no memory afterwards of what they have done.

How can your workplace help deepen your skills to work with distressed children?


  • The dissociated child with the knife responded to Margaret’s calm voice.
  • He heard her comment that she always thought he would be a good Ninja who could throw the knife into the ground so it would stand up.
  • He focused and threw the knife and she complemented him but suggested he could do better, e.g. have the knife stand up straight.
  • Now he was looking at her and his heightened state started to de-escalate. At her suggestion, he tried again, as she continued to calmly talk with him, telling him what a skilled Ninja he was.
  • On the third throw, she complemented him on making the knife stand up straight in the ground, and then asked if he could give her the knife, which he retrieved and handed to her.
  • She taught him to regulate his own behaviour, and showed him that he could make good choices.

Children who have experienced trauma will often be on a continual 50% scale of high alert. This is survival. Games that can help regulate such heightened states include body movement, animal games (relevant to the child’s age), theatre, and puppets in story-making.

In establishing trust, you as a worker can help a child develop connection to and compassion for their underlying hurt and powerlessness. They may explode in anger, however, and without understanding why, the child again feels shameful, exposed, and fearful that they will be punished again for their behaviour. A child needs help to develop the strength to be vulnerable in a protected and safe situation and to be heard.

Encourage your workplace to hold training sessions where such skills can be explored and developed.


(Limbic system – ‘the emotional relational brain’)
‘This is the time you work to connect with the child through an attuned sensitive relationship. You work to empathise and validate the child’s feelings, so they feel seen, heard and understood.’ (Perry, 2015; Heller & LaPierre, 2012).

Judy was approached by parents who were separating, and who had asked if she could prepare the children for the separation. In having the whole family come together, she chose to ask each family member to collect some ‘found’ objects, while thinking about what they wanted to say to each other. It was important to have the two children, six and eight years of age, be heard by the parents.

The four family members spent time finding objects that would help them talk to how they were feeling and what they were thinking. The six-year-old sat with serious intent as he placed a rock, a stick and a tangled mass of fishing line down in front of him, preparing to talk when they were all together. Judy sat quietly with him while waiting for his parents and brother to come back into the room.

Attunement – Self-regulation

The organising principle under ‘relate’ is attunement moving to self-regulation, which is also linked to identity and family. Attunement describes how reactive a child may be to another’s emotional needs and moods. As a worker if you are well-attuned to the child, you will respond with appropriate body language and behaviour, based on the child’s emotional presentation.

While a baby’s brain and nervous system develops at a rapid rate, the child may be locked into the fight/flight reflex as an early response to survival needs. On the other hand, the family or you as a worker can be attuned to the child’s needs and can provide safety for self-regulation, so they can be clear in their knowing, their feelings, thinking and behaviour.

As Judy describes it, the child sat with serious intent waiting for his sibling and parents to return to the room. When they did, she invited him to speak first. He put his hand on the rock.

“Dad”, he said, “you are hard like this rock. You do not listen”.

He put his hand on the stick.

“Mum”, he said, “you hurt me when you hit me with a stick. It is not fair”.

Then he picked up the tangled mess of fishing line. He looked at his parents.

“When you fight, I feel like I am this fishing line. I am all tangled up inside. I don’t like it”.

The parents listened. After all family members had spoken, the children now understanding the meaning of the separation for them, the parents suggested they all play the games the parents remembered from their childhood.

Age-relevant animal games and dance can allow a child to express strong emotions, attachments and connection. Such games can bring a child back into their body and build a safe relationship, in the mirroring of emotions. A child is a cultured being; however, some children with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage may have a conflict in identity.

Some children may come from situations where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures (and hence their identity) have been belittled. Culture is central to a child’s sense of self and wellbeing, their perception of who they are. An emerging identity and sense of belonging is important to success in lifelong learning about self and the world in which we live. As a worker, you can provide opportunities for children to experience positive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural experiences, by connecting with local cultural activities. This can be a three-way experience, for you as a worker, for the child as they grow in those experiences, and for your workplace.

In the relationships of helping feelings be named, known and expressed, there is strength in learning self-regulation. Music and movement games can involve naming a feeling in response to music – helping a child experience ‘making emotions’. You can help a child experience self-regulation and give them permission to let out their aggression through dance or play and learn how to express their needs directly. You will find that animal games (e.g. the ‘angry tiger’, ‘jumping kangaroo’, ‘running dingo’, and ‘frightened mouse’), can be empowering for smaller children. Art expression then enhances the experience.


(Cortical – ‘the thinking, planning, creative brain’; diversity and autonomy in family and social relationships) (Perry, 2015; Heller & LaPierre, 2012).


All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children show a deep connection to nature when given an opportunity to be outdoors, in play and adventure activities and natural environments. You can help them build a strong connection to the natural world, to animals and birds, plants and bush tucker, helping develop a sense of belonging to Land and to culture within Country. Diversity can also be taught through such activities, as you point out that every animal is different, with different sizes, colours and behaviours, just like humans.

Elders decided to work with youth who were deemed ‘at risk’, in an activity on Country. The youth were supported to gather rainforest seeds to propagate in a nursery for bush regeneration. In this activity, opportunities for informal discussion about diversity in rainforest habitat, including safe-sex practice (in-breeding) of animals in rainforest remnants, took place, which was the reason the Elders wanted to build corridors between rainforest remnants.

This then opened up a discussion by a female Elder with the youth, about the structure of and reason for kinship systems – a topic that had not previously been discussed with them. In this activity with the Elder the youth started to feel safe to discuss confusion about their sexual development and identity, feeling supported to discover who they were as sexual beings without judgement.

Be aware that in providing opportunities for youth to be involved in such discussions, some youth may feel safe enough to disclose unwanted sexual activities they have experienced.

Does your workplace support disclosures of a sexual nature in children or young people that supports the child’s ongoing healthy development?

As a worker you can begin to form an understanding of the complex Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship systems, family relations and extended family relationships which are central to the way culture is passed on and society is organised. You may also become aware that some of these systems have broken down and need to be rebuilt.

Often young people have not been given opportunities to discuss and make sense of such systems within the breakdown of cultural traditions. While the kinship system may determine how people relate to each other and their roles and obligations within such responsibilities, in ceremonial business and caring for Country, such systems also teach law, relationship responsibility and diversity within all life forms and eco systems. Young people should be given opportunities to discuss the value of such traditions.

How can this be supported in your workplace and by you as a worker?


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are considered to be autonomous in their rights and assume responsibility for younger children from an early age. However, they are often not skilled to survive without the structure of functional kinship systems and healthy communal connections, which too often have broken down under the impacts of colonisation.

Historically, boys became men by entering ceremonies of initiation, under the care and guidance of senior men and male elders. Similarly, girls grew into being young women and mothers under the guidance of senior women and female elders. When such people are missing, it is important to invite Elders to work with you and to seek out and create opportunities for boys to become men and girls to become women through creative cultural activities and nature exploration.

Judy explains: ‘While working with a group of young people in crisis, we invited them to create a play – theatre from their stories. The play was raw, stark and real, including family fighting, drug use, confusion about their future role in their family-community, and in their sexual identities. They used music, art and theatre to tell their stories. They were later invited to perform the play for their families, friends and the community. They learnt the skills of working together. They felt heard. The play opened conversations within the community. The play also taught us about their lives far richer than the formal counselling support activities previously provided.’

Such activities can build safety and trust; capacity to attune to circumstances; resilience and self-regulation; and the ability to accept diversity within growing self-governance.

Helping to build skills for self-sufficiency and independence is critical. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people have heard of ‘self-determination’. You can help them unpack what this means for them, beginning with the word ‘self’. Having worked with a child or young person to feel calm, connected and heard, deeper relationships can be built. Young people can be involved with you to plan what they would like to see as their future. Once having set such a vision, it is more likely to become a reality.

As one of the authors responded when asked ‘what is the most important skill needed to work with children and youth?’:

‘To love them – and see the good when others just see the negative behaviours that are a result of wounding and pain.’

The message stick we bring brings focus to the cultural determinants of neuro-developmental processes for healing trauma: Establishing state regulation in building safety and trust in self and in others; helping develop emotional self-regulation as autonomy; moving to understanding diversity and autonomy in abstract thought for thinking about life’s meaning and emotional balance. Through these processes, children and youth can be helped to create a vision for their future in story books, healing creative arts and music.

Source: We Al-li CITIHA, 2017


The Secretariat for the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) supports what has been presented here by emphasising that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children need to have a sense of belonging to self, community and country. They must feel pride and be able to see a future as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult within a culture which acts as a source of strength in connections to Country, spirituality, family and extended community. They must feel and be culturally safe.

Your work environment should be welcoming to family and community members. Children feel a strong sense of identity when their culture and families are honoured, celebrated and included in your service. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities within your regions can provide relevant, culturally-specific education in support of all young First Nations children and young people. Building from the cultural knowledge and skills and working with (alongside) each other builds relationships and affirms a sense of belonging in a world where too often children and young people have come to feel unsafe. The most important part of this is to hear and know the stories the children are carrying and acknowledge both their pain and their resilience. They teach us.

The next section invites you to listen to and consider a series of five stories. You might like to use these stories as discussion points when exploring what you and your organisation might do/have done under similar circumstances.

Know and understand the child’s world

Please note: An Australian animal or bird has been used to de-identify the children featured in the following case studies.

A story that teaches: Emu

A class had been set up specifically for the social and emotional learning needs of a number of young girls. The mother of one student we call Emu, age 10, had recently died from a drug overdose, and Emu was really struggling with grief associated with the loss of her mother. Emu was also being subjected to bullying from the other girls.

Mother’s Day was approaching. A staff member organised for the girls to create a card for each mother, or caring person, often grandmothers, in their lives. It is always important to be sensitive to the needs of all students.

A decision was made to take Emu to visit her mother’s grave, to deliver some flowers and the card she had made. Parental permission was received to include all the girls from the class in the graveside visit. This had a very powerful impact on the other girls, as they came to understand the deep loss Emu had experienced. This changed their behaviour towards her. The bullying stopped. They became supportive and caring, as they worked to include her in all of their activities.

As they gained her trust, she started to confide in them about serious child protection issues she was experiencing since the death of her mother. They told a staff member, also advising them that she needed underwear.

After the mandatory notification was made, the Joint Investigative Review Team (JIRT) came to the school to interview Emu. They did not bring an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team member, nor a support person. On arriving, they focused on setting up the video to record the interview, without attempting to engage with Emu, who became anxious and upset, and walked out of the interview room, not to return.

Discussion and points for further consideration

There are a number of lessons here. Because the school knew of the death of the mother, they were sensitive to the meaning of a Mother’s Day activity for Emu. The visit to the gravesite with her school companions opened their capacity to be compassionate and caring, to the extent she confided in them about what was happening to her. They then went to the school staff member with their concerns, resulting in a mandatory report.

Children are often at increased risk at such vulnerable times in their lives. The JIRT team showed a level of insensitivity in the way they set up their equipment before their proposed interview with Emu. She would have been terrified. If the first priority had been to engage with her, instead of focusing on setting up the technology while she sat watching and waiting, the outcome could have been very different.

It is important to be aware of compounded loss, grief and trauma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ lives, which can be generational. There is no deficit and there should be no judgement. We do not know what may have contributed to the mother’s need to use drugs. There is just pain and trying to cope with pain, across generations.

However, some people may have negative beliefs about themselves. Emu may have had such beliefs, but when her class companions showed her compassion, she confided in them and was willing to talk to the JIRT team. She was not choosing silence but lacked compassionate listeners.

However, the JIRT Team showed a lack of professional understanding of, or compassion for the needs of a child they were about to interview on sexual abuse matters. The other students responded with compassion and care because they had become aware.

It is important to take time to get to know not just a child, but their extended family, and to look for strengths. However, we must also be aware of times of vulnerability. Being different and having different beliefs, values and experiences does not mean a child or their family are inferior, but they may be struggling with generational grief and trauma.

Children’s behaviour is language, don’t judge: Listen, learn and act from what you have learnt

A story that teaches: Kangaroo

The confidential sharing of information between agencies should be used to support vulnerable students. As an example, we tell the story of a young male of approximately 8 years of age, who started at a school which understood the importance of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and ensured no child went without food. Children cannot learn if they are hungry.

Breakfast is provided to the children at this school because the school is aware of some of their extreme home circumstances. At breakfast on his first day, Kangaroo asked a staff member if he had to pay for his food. The student was told that food was provided with no expected payment. There was a barbeque at lunchtime and the student once again asked if he had to pay. He was again told to help himself. Kangaroo helped himself – he filled all his pockets with cooked sausages and chops, obviously to take home to share with his family.

In class that afternoon, Kangaroo had an extreme verbal outburst, which resulted in the other students having to be evacuated. He screamed out a number of very threatening comments and was visibly distressed.

Unbeknownst to the school at the time of enrolment, Kangaroo had just witnessed a very violent assault on a family member, resulting in a death and another family member being charged and placed on remand in prison. Knowledge of this event would have been critical in providing the most appropriate level of support to this student; in understanding that he was very hungry, but had been taught he had to pay for any food at school, money he did not have. He was also aware of the hunger within other children in his family, so ensured he could take some home to them.

The school is not sure what triggered his outburst; however, they may have been able to respond, and reduce the stress that triggered the outburst, if they had known Kangaroo had just witnessed this violent assault. The school made no attempt to stop him from taking food, for clearly his actions showed other members of his family were also hungry. He cared.

Discussion and points for further consideration

Children can have high levels of resilience, often under extreme circumstances, which can be wrongly interpreted as bad behaviour. Kangaroo was resilient at many levels. While he was clearly very hungry, he remembered to ask if he had to pay. He thought of and cared for his other family members. However, he was also clearly embodied within the experience of witnessing extreme violence, resulting in the death of a family member.

It is essential to take the time to get to know the child’s world. It would not have been a breach of confidentiality for the Department of Education, in suspending Kangaroo and moving him to a new school, to tell the receiving school what had recently happened within his family and what he had seen and experienced.

There should be no judgement in Australia, in ensuring no child is hungry, particularly if the mandate of a Department of Education is to ensure all Australian children have access to educational opportunities. If they feel they would be breaching confidentiality, then they need to work with other government services to ensure the necessary information is given to the school to ensure a child receives all the services they need, to be able to learn. A child is at school for six hours a day; a school has the biggest opportunity to support the child to learn in all areas of life – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and social – when other circumstances may be failing them.

Understand where fear of authority might come from

A story that teaches: Black Cockatoo

A young teen, Black Cockatoo, was in a car with two school staff when a car drove past. Immediately she said: ‘Quick! There’s the rapist … there’s the rapist.’ She quickly grabbed a mobile phone and took a photo of the car and the car’s license plate. She wanted to go down to the PCYC (Police Citizens Youth Club) and other places where children and young people hang out, to tell them not to get into his car: ‘He’s a rapist.’

The information was passed on to the appropriate authorities. Black Cockatoo agreed to an interview with the police.

When her mother was informed of this, out of fear her daughter would be removed by family and child services (FACS), Black Cockatoo was given a belting and told she was not to talk with the police. Past removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has left a deep legacy of fear within many adults, while their engagement with authorities has taught them to avoid any contact, a deep mistrust based on previous experiences. This had previously been the experience of the mother.

Postscript: Later discussion with the police established they knew about the man but could not get the evidence to charge him. His predatory sexual behaviour targeted disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people. In the meantime, Black Cockatoo went down to the PCYC to tell the other children about this man and ‘not to get into his car – even if he offers goodies from his boot.’

Discussion and points for further consideration

Black Cockatoo wanted to protect other children from something she had experienced. She was calling a warning. Listen, learn and observe how children are resilient and protective of each other. Never use your position to exert power over an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child or young person. Your reputation will precede you. Do not sit behind a desk, sit alongside them, and use art, side by side, to help them share their stories.

Be aware that if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children feel comfortable and accepted, they will sit very close to you, even securing body contact. They may not be ready to fully confide in you, but they are drawing closer to ‘test the water’. Non-verbal communication and body language are read very well, so be careful how your face, body position and body language may be experienced and perceived. They understand dismissive tones in your voice. However, also be aware that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children may have hearing problems and may need to be able to ‘read your lips’. They will watch your face with clear intent, in an attempt to understand you.

Past removal of children has left a legacy of fear and distrust within many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers. You will need to earn trust, with children’s mothers and children.

Finally, it is important that the mandatory Protective Behaviours Curriculum be taught in all schools as a strategy for giving children knowledge and language of how to stay safe. However, this may trigger behaviour that tells stories, and could result in disclosures. Children must always be believed when they make a disclosure and be reassured that what happened was not their fault. We have found that if the disclosure is about someone within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, children are believed by authorities; however, if the disclosure involves a powerful non-Indigenous person or people as the abuser/s, the children are generally not believed, and quickly learn this through body and verbal language.

Words and actions are powerful, they can positively change lives or destroy them: Use words to develop self-esteem and not to wound an already wounded child

A young boy, Wombat, was struggling to regulate his behaviour. He was also struggling with the very punitive punishment used by his father, which his father had experienced and learnt from his own father, working as a station hand as a child.

The father had a very strong work ethic and liked to be employed. When Wombat was put on a partial attendance by his base school (from 9-11am each day), the school required the parent to collect their son from school. The father had to give up his paid employment for this to happen. This created further stress on the family through financial difficulties and considerable blaming of Wombat for the family situation.

Despite this, Wombat demonstrated kindness to other students. He was very parentified and took responsibility for his younger siblings, particularly for his father’s punishment in the expectation for his children to be obedient at all costs.

This school had a reward system, whereby students accumulated merit points which they could convert to buy up points at a local op shop. At one ‘buy up’ Wombat was observed offering another student his points to buy a pair of shoes, as Wombat had noticed the terrible state of the shoes the other child was wearing.

Such kindness and generosity from a student who himself had very little is commendable. See the positive and understand the woundedness exhibited in generational traumatic behaviour.

Discussion and points for further consideration

Always be authentic. Listen with your heart and look for empathic, authentic engagement. Understand and accept generational parenting, which may result in children becoming parentified, which is not a cultural behaviour but a product of history. An almost inevitable by-product of parentification may be Aboriginal children, as workers, learning a work ethic, but being punished for never being good enough. They were expected to rear up their children in the same way they were treated as child station workers, and hence, lost their own childhood and passed down much of what they learnt, in their own parenting style.

In destructive parentification, the child in question takes excessive responsibility in the family, without their caretaking being acknowledged and supported by others. By adopting the role of parental caregiver, the child loses their real place in the family unit, as a child, and is left feeling lonely and unsure. This may threaten self-identity and result in a sense of abandonment and loss, without the child having words to understand those feelings.

However, not all results of parentification may be negative. Some studies show a child having greater psychological resilience, more individuation, and a clearer sense of self later in life. Cross-cultural studies also point out the widespread nature of the practice of parentification. This was not the case in this situation. Growing up to care for other children is an Aboriginal cultural process, but having to assume the role of parent is not.

In being with such children, use humour. Never underestimate the power of laughter. Always remain calm. Learn strategies for de-escalation and share food – it is a proven ice breaker and can teach table behaviours not always evident in a family in crisis.

Creative activities as school-based therapies that work

A school that includes creative therapies and nature discovery/bush therapies in their curriculum – Lyre Birds Making Music

A school asked for trauma-informed training which they could use in response to the needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being sent there, suspended or expelled from all other schools in the region. A workshop outlined information on trauma across generations and then introduced creative cultural therapies that could be used in schools to help heal childhood trauma. The training used Bruce Perry’s work to emphasise the power of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing practices:

‘Examination of the known beliefs, rituals and healing practices of [Aboriginal] peoples reveal some remarkable principles.’

Healing rituals converge into a set of core elements related to adaptation and healing following trauma. These core elements include an overarching belief system, a rationale, a reason for the pain, injury, loss: a retelling or re-enactment of the trauma in words, dance or song, all provided in intensely relational experience(s) with family and clan participating in the ritual. To tell the story … creating images of the battle … in drama. Eat and share together.

‘While these therapeutic practices may not at first seem “biological”, be assured that they are not only likely to change the brain, but they will assuredly provide the patterned, repetitive stimuli required to specifically influence and modify the impact of trauma, neglect, and maltreatment on key neural systems.’ (Perry, 2008, pp. ix – xi).

Introducing the children to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, art and their own language in stories created pride in identity. Puppets and theatre provided outlets for aggression and story-telling within safe environments, which also created self-expression, self-confidence and language development.

The Lyre Birds said:

‘I like music because I can feel the beat through my body; I like dance because I can tell different stories; I like body work because I feel calm and relaxed; I like theatre because I can be different characters; I like art because I can’t make mistakes; I like nature discovery because I can learn things when I am outside.’

Nature discovery was part of the bush therapeutic approaches for being in Country, making connection and meaning-making in learning about Country.

Discussion and points for further consideration

Creative art therapies are important in responding to the needs of children who have experienced traumatic life events. Such therapeutic approaches are vital in working with these children and their families. Building on the strength of culture and community is also vital.

Children are creative in using found objects to tell stories about their lives; they will draw and will talk to their story maps. Bush adventure therapies also provide safe environments to explore expression with Elders and cultural leaders who can teach dance and story in the strength of connection to Country. Either inside or outdoors (which is often better for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child), invite children to create stories they want to tell, and help them rearrange those stories to name their strengths and resilience.

In the following video, both Judy and Carlie were asked what wisdom they would give to non-Indigenous practitioners.

Further resources and references

Further resources for working effectively alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people:

Aboriginal Elders Roundtable. (2007). Aboriginal partnership in early child development and parenting centres South Australia. [Aboriginal Roundtable response to: ‘What would it take for Aboriginal partnership in early child development and parenting centres?’ for Fraser Mustard.] Adelaide: South Australian Government Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Atkinson, J. (2013). ‘Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care for Indigenous Australian children‘, Resource sheet no. 21. Produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare / Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Bamblett, M. & Lewis, P. (2007). Detoxifying the child and family welfare system for Australian Indigenous peoples: self-determination, rights and culture as the critical tools. First Peoples Child and Family Review, 3(3), 43–56.

Bamblett, M. (2008). Culture as resilience and protection for Aboriginal children. Every Child Magazine, 14(4), 36.

Downey, L. (2007). Calmer classrooms: a guide to working with traumatised children. Melbourne, Vic: Child Safety Commissioner.

Harris, N. B. (2014). How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. Lecture presented at the 2014 TEDMED Conference, San Francisco, CA.

Australian Childhood Foundation. (2018). Making SPACE for learning: Trauma-informed practice in schools. Richmond, Vic: ACF.

Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. (2010). Foster their culture: Caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. North Fitzroy, Vic: SNAICC.

Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. (2010). Working and Walking Together: Supporting Family Relationship Services to Work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families and Organisations. North Fitzroy, Vic: SNAICC.

The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency. (n.d.). Working with Aboriginal children and families: A guide for child protection and child and family welfare workers. Preston, Vic: VACCA. (This guide can be purchased from VACCA – phone: 03 8388 1855)


Atkinson, J. (2019). Aboriginal Australia trauma stories can become healing stories if we work with therapeutic intent. In R. Benjamin, J. Haliburn, & S. King (Eds), Humanising Mental Health Care in Australia (pp. 133–142). London, UK: Routledge.

Atkinson, J. (2013). ‘Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care for Indigenous Australian children‘, Resource sheet no. 21. Produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare / Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Atkinson, J. (2002). Trauma trails, recreating song lines: The transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia. North Melbourne, Vic: Spinifex Press.

Bloom, S. (2019). Trauma Theory. In R. Benjamin, J. Haliburn, & S. King (Eds), Humanising Mental Health Care in Australia (pp. 22–30). London, UK: Routledge.

Dobud, W. (2015). Bruce Perry’s Three R’s: Regulate, relate & reason.

Heller, L. and LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma afffects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationships. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Kezelman, K. (2019). Childhood trauma – the long-term impact and the human cost. In R. Benjamin, J. Haliburn, & S. King (Eds.), Humanising Mental Health Care in Australia (pp. 43–55). London, UK: Routledge.

Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2007). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook – what traumatized children can teach us about life, loss and healing. Sydney, NSW: Hachette.

Perry, B. D. (2008). Forward. In C. A. Malchiodi (Ed.), Creative interventions with traumatized children (pp. ix-xi). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC). Child safety and wellbeing.

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