Dr Meegan Brown, Queensland University of Technology
Dr Meegan Brown is a lecturer and study area co-ordinator of the Master of Education School Guidance and Counselling at the Queensland University of Technology. Meegan’s research focuses on trauma aware schooling and rural and remote education. Meegan has worked as a teacher (early childhood, primary, secondary), small school principal, Guidance Officer and Senior Guidance Officer in North West Queensland. In these roles she facilitated and supported schools in using restorative practices.
In some form, we all experience the effects of intergenerational trauma. This has major implications for how we are connecting and working with young people and their families.
Let me tell you about ‘Lester’ (not his real name). Lester was the student always in trouble at school, seen by teachers as defiant, rude, and not one to take responsibility for his actions. His mother was viewed as difficult, abrupt, and very vocal about how she perceived her son being constantly treated unfairly, particularly by the education system. One day, Lester was the victim of an incident that resulted in physical and emotional harm to him, caused by another student who had never been in trouble at school. As you can imagine, Lester’s mother was livid! I was asked to facilitate a restorative conference to address the harm that had occurred.
When I started the information gathering process and met all involved individually, what do you think was clear?
We will come back to Lester shortly.
What is trauma?
The 2023 landmark Australian Child Maltreatment Study found childhood maltreatment (neglect, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and exposure to domestic violence) is widespread. 62.2% of the Australian population has experienced at least one form of childhood maltreatment, with exposure to domestic violence the most common. Childhood maltreatment is a major issue impacting today’s children and youth. It is associated with significant mental health and behaviour concerns both in childhood and adulthood. For those of us working with children and young people we see these mental health and behaviour concerns firsthand.
These sobering findings are a call to action, particularly those of us working with children and young people. What can we do to support trauma-impacted children and youth? Many are already responding to this call to action and are implementing trauma-informed practices and restorative practices as well as investigating how to improve the ways that we support trauma impacted children and youth and those who work with them.
The findings of the Australian Child Maltreatment Study give us important information about the different types of maltreatment experienced by children. We also need to peel back these layers to see what has come prior, and what is now contributing to unacceptable levels of childhood maltreatment. This involves understanding intergenerational trauma and the devastating effects it has on individuals, families, and communities.
What is intergenerational trauma?
Intergenerational trauma occurs when individuals and families (including communities) pass trauma from generation to generation through changes in DNA expression (epigenetics). It can also be transmitted through narratives and coping behaviours. Studies have shown that this can have a significant impact on both our physical and mental health. This in turn impacts how we interact with others and parent our children.
How do we see the effects of intergenerational trauma?
There are many ways that we can see the effects of intergenerational trauma. Examples may include ongoing neglect, health concerns, low school engagement, involvement with child protection services, and family and domestic violence.
One prime example is the ‘youth crime epidemic’ described in recent news.
When I was working as a school counsellor, in an area now recognised as one of the ‘hot spots’ of youth crime in my state, I worked with young people who were known to the youth justice system and child protection system. These young people would tell me about what they were currently experiencing – neglect, family domestic violence, and differing types of abuse. When I spoke to their family members, they told me their own stories, including the stories of their parents and grandparents. It was deja’vu. I was hearing a similar story of experiences that had been passed down through generations, with parents of each generation doing the best they could but impacted by their own unresolved trauma. This in turn influenced how they parented and interacted with others. Many of these parents and young people expressed fear of working with different support agencies due to experiencing racism and re-traumatisation.
Back to Lester, what do you think? Was this something I needed to consider?
Through my conversations with Lester and his mother, they shared with me their history and their family’s history (past and more recent). There was trauma and this influenced how they viewed the world and interacted with others. They were in constant ‘fight mode’ so that they could survive.
What can we do?
My research with colleagues highlights the importance of understanding trauma, including intergenerational trauma and being culturally aware (Brown et al., 2022; Brown & L’Estrange, 2023). Understanding the effects of trauma transforms our understanding of what young people need to be engaged and successful. It also enables those working with them to interrupt rather than perpetuate the cycle of trauma.
We also need to be doing our own personal work in looking at how our experiences, values, biases, and the language we use may impact our interactions with others. How do we show up when working with young people and their families? Are we showing unconditional positive regard and no blame? Taking a “no blame” approach was very important to the participants in my study when looking at how teachers experience their work with children impacted by trauma – “not finding blame for children’s circumstances or casting judgements but working from a position of strength and agency” (Brown et al., 2022 p. 9).
Many of us working with traumatised youth feel very unprepared to know what to do when faced with these situations whether in our work and/or in our community. Depending on our own history we may be triggered and/or experience secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma when listening to stories of unresolved trauma.
This highlights the importance of allprofessionals being trained during preparation programs in trauma-informed practices and cultural awareness, receive ongoing learning, support, and coaching in trauma-informed practices, and having a whole systems approach to trauma-informed practices (Howard et al., 2022).
Is this work hard? Most definitely! In my experience, it will challenge you to your core. But is important and necessary if we are to work in this space.
How did I show up in preparing for the restorative conference for Lester?
When talking to all parties involved because of their experiences, I took different approaches. All of these were trauma informed, and I also used strategies from Burnett and Thorsborne (2015). For example, with Lester, I also found out he had a learning difficulty and found it hard to express his ideas and emotions. To address this, I asked Lester to draw what happened and how he felt. We were able to use this during the restorative conference for Lester to be able to tell what happened to him and how it impacted him and his family. With both mothers, I encouraged them to talk and that it was ok to express anger, frustration, and cry.
For the boy who caused the harm, this was the first significant adverse experience he had experienced. As he was very articulate, he was able to work through with me his thoughts and feelings. Importantly throughout this process, I did not pass judgment on what I was hearing.
The Role of Restorative Practice
Responding to harm through a behaviorist punishment lens continues the cycle of dysfunction and further trauma. This can have detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of young people. It is not trauma or culturally informed. Rather, it perpetuates and adds to the trauma that these young people are experiencing. For harm to be addressed and healing to occur, young people need to have a sense of safety. Restorative practices provide a secure base and safe haven for this to occur not only for those who have been harmed but also the person who caused the harm. This is done through connecting and reconnecting them through relationship!
It is important when we look at harm that has occurred to also consider it within experiences of intergenerational trauma as well as domestic and family violence, stolen generations, poverty, mental illness, and disability. Implementing trauma-informed practices and restorative practices is needed to help support those who have experienced and continue to experience intergenerational trauma.
How did it go with Lester?
I must admit, I didn’t sleep very well the night before. However, my preparation and taking a trauma-informed approach paid off. The conference was empowering and healing for all involved. Together, we were able to formulate a plan to support both young men. As we concluded the conference, the mothers cried as they hugged each other, showing deep empathy and respect. Both young men shook hands and made a commitment to move forward. As the weeks passed, I followed up with all involved. There were no further incidents, the school decided they would invest in becoming restorative. Lester’s mother said to me, “We were able to heal…it is the first time in my life and my son’s life that we’ve really felt heard and supported…. this experience [restorative conference] has helped us to realise that there are people in the education system who are there to support.”