Her Brain Chose for Her
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Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses
Her Brain Chose for Her

Chapter 4:
The Legacy Of Trauma

“Intergenerational trauma is directly linked to the banning of cultural practices, policies and institutions of assimilation, and loss of culture. It is a reaction to multigenerational, collective, historical wounding of the mind, emotions and spirit.”
(The Soul Wounds of the Anishinabek People, 2013, page 8)

brains divider

Trauma perpetuates itself. It’s handed down from generation to generation in families (Intergenerational Trauma) and in cultures and populations where people have been oppressed and abused (Historical Trauma) (Intervention to Address Intergenerational Trauma, 2012). Most interpersonal trauma suffered by children is inflicted by people who were subjected to trauma early in their lives. This tendency to repeat is an integral aspect of what’s called “the cycle of violence” (Van Der Kolk, 1989).

Many older women who have suffered complex trauma have experienced violence from a number of perpetrators. Some of these women might never have disclosed their trauma – even in cases where the abuse began when the women were young.

The term Complex Trauma describes the experience of multiple traumatic events that start early in a woman’s life. If a child suffers trauma, it’s likely the trauma is part of a series of traumatic events. Complex trauma can include sexual abuse, physical abuse, war, community violence, and neglect. It can also include witnessing violence – if a child sees one parent abusing the other, or sees a sibling or another young person being abused (Trauma-Informed, 2013).

complex trauma: brain and puzzle pieces

A woman who has experienced complex trauma may find herself seized by powerful emotions she can’t control. She may burst out with these emotions in ways that frighten her and the people around her. Her outbursts may be prompted by seemingly minor stimuli; We call this mode of reaction emotional dysregulation, and it is characteristic of complex trauma (Franco, 2018). In your work, you may see a woman become angry or afraid for no obvious reason. Possibly, in these moments, something in the environment has triggered her to enter a highly emotional state.

Understanding the effects of trauma as natural, protective responses, which are based in resiliency and survival, helps to understand the critique of psychiatric approaches to trauma; for example, diagnosing trauma responses using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Ultimately, it may be more helpful to your client to understand her responses to trauma as coping skills rather than symptoms of a mental health disorder. Diagnoses, including PTSD, have also been criticized as divorced of an intersectional lens and of the reality of the social structures within which we live and experience violence (Burstow, 2003).

Emotional Dysregulation & the “Window of Tolerance”

Trauma affects a woman’s “window of tolerance”- however trauma-informed support and services can enlarge this window.

Imagine you are working with a new client with complex trauma experiences.

She often seems as though she is riding a roller coaster of unpredictable, uncontrollable emotions. This is sometimes described as emotional dysregulation. When emotional regulation is present, she is in her “Window of Tolerance” and is able to control her response to stressors.

Note: Click on the different purple labels below to learn more about the
5 different states of emotional regulation/dysregulation depicted.

Colour the Window of Tolerance

outdoor scene showing effects of the brain: rocks at bottom, sunny window, and volcanic eruption at top

Intergenerational and Historical Trauma

When unresolved, Historical Trauma is passed from one generation to the next, we call it Intergenerational Trauma or Multi-Generational Trauma. When a group of people who share an affiliation (ethnicity, race, religion), have been oppressed and abused over successive generations, we refer to the abuse as Historical Trauma. We don’t have to look far to see the devastating effects of Historical Trauma. In Canada, Indigenous peoples have suffered discrimination, harm, loss of life and systemic deculturalization –abuses condoned by society and encouraged by government policy (Allan & Smylie,2015).

“Indigenous social and cultural devastation in the present is the result of unremitting personal and collective trauma due to demographic collapse, resulting from early influenza and smallpox epidemics and other infectious diseases, conquest, warfare, slavery, colonization, proselytization, famine and starvation, the 1892 to the late 1960s residential school period and forced assimilation… Since contact, First Nation people have experienced several waves of traumatic experience on social and individual levels that have continued to place enormous strain on the fabric of Aboriginal societies across the continent.” (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2004).

Over the past four decades, it is estimated over 20,000 Indigenous children have been removed from their family homes by child intervention services and placed into the care of mostly non-Indigenous families and separated from their community, culture and language (Paradis, 2018). The “Sixties Scoop” refers to a period in Canadian history beginning in the 1960s, however this is more accurately described as the “Millennium Scoop” and an ongoing crisis; There are more than three times the number of Indigenous children placed in the care of the province today than at the height of the operation of the residential school system (Blackstock, 2010).

In Ontario, Indigenous children represent only 4.1% of the population under 15, but approximately 50% of children within foster care; This over representation increases as the child welfare service decisions become more intrusive/extreme. (“Interrupted childhoods” OHRC, 2018). Although Métis and Inuit children are also overrepresented within child welfare systems, First Nations children are by large the most overrepresented, with First Nations children under 19 representing 3% of the child population in Ontario and 21% of all provincial wards (Kozlowski, et al. 2012).

Systems, service providers, and policies often fail to contextualize welfare concerns, in particular, neglect, related to Indigenous children within the history of colonization in Canada; ; in many cases, concerns including educational and medical neglect due to lack of financial resources, are ultimately rooted in structural factors largely beyond a caregiver’s control such as social poverty, substance misuse and inadequate housing (Blackstock, 2010).

An older Indigenous woman you work with may have been abused in the residential school system, taken away from her family by child welfare services, or had her competency as a caregiver questioned by service providers and systems. She may have been traumatized so deeply and at such a young age that she has no language to describe the trauma; she may have spoken of her trauma and not been believed. In your interactions with a survivor of historical trauma, or any type of trauma, know that she may have reached out before and been denied the help she sought, and that it may have been services and systems which perpetuated the most impactful trauma in her life. Also remember the healing power of respect, empathy and compassion.


Food for Thought:

  • What systems and services might a survivor of a residential schoolbe hesitant to engage with? What strategies might be helpful inbuilding trust?
  • What supports are in/near/accessible to your community specific toIndigenous women?