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Growing up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Disconnection from cultural practices, traditions and roles has caused enduring hurt to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s identity and sense of belonging to family and community. Problematic alcohol and drug use exacerbates these experiences and can have a direct impact on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are raised.

Growing up babies

As reported in The Summary of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health status 2018, in 2015–2017, babies born to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers were twice as likely to die in their first year as those born to non-Indigenous mothers, and were more likely to have a low birth weight than babies of non-Indigenous mothers.

This may be due the age of the mother, lack of knowledge about the risks of cigarettes and AOD use, poverty-like living conditions, and lack of access to prenatal and AOD services.

Improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers, babies and children is crucial in reducing the mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of five.

What can you do?

Do not make assumptions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who do not access prenatal or AOD care during their pregnancy. Meeting the woman where she is at is important so you can understand what is getting in her way and how you can help to reduce risks for her baby.

For example, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander woman may:

  • hold close traditional ceremonies and beliefs about pregnancy and birthing that go against western practices. This may be a barrier to getting mainstream prenatal care
  • not have information about or be able to access Aboriginal antenatal services or health workers, particularly in remote areas
  • be unaware of the impact of AOD use on herself or her baby
  • be fearful that if she engages with AOD or health services, her baby will be taken from her.

According to the Australian Government’s Health Performance Framework 2014 Report,  perinatal data shows that in 2011, 99% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers accessed antenatal care services at least once during their pregnancy—which is similar to the percentage for non-Indigenous mothers.

Watch: Strong Aboriginal women telling their stories of making changes to their AOD use. This video is about Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. (While the name for babies in Victoria is ‘Boorais’, in Queensland it is ‘Jarjums’.)

Strong Boorais, Bright Futures - Keeping healthy during pregnancy

Further reading

Babies in the Safe care and connection practice kit

Australian Government Department of Health Pregnancy Care Guidelines: 3 Pregnancy care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women.

Growing up children

When schoolchildren were asked what the biggest problem was in their community, the most common answers were alcohol use, smoking and violence. When the kids were asked what could be done to make a better community, they said that adults should stop drinking and being violent and look after their kids better (Penman, 2006).

Problematic AOD use harms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children the same way as it does any child. However, there is an additional factor that makes these children more vulnerable to harm. The shorter life span and higher incidence of ill health among Aboriginal people impacts on the vital cultural tradition of parents and grandparents guiding children as they grow up.

Growing up young people

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people drink and use drugs for the same reasons as any other young person. However, there are some unique factors that can increase their vulnerability:

  • Shared cultural grief—they are likely to experience more intense shame, despair, demoralisation and hopelessness, or what is sometimes called ‘community depression’. This is a shared cultural grief born from intergenerational trauma and oppression.
  • Disconnection and isolation—In the absence of traditional mentoring or guidance from men and women in their community, Aboriginal young people experience disconnection and isolation, which leads them to drinking and taking drugs together as a way to connect.
  • Intergenerational patterns of AOD use—Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people come from family backgrounds that include significant AOD problems. When children grow up with their parents and other adults openly drinking and excessively using drugs, this becomes the norm.
    Communal sharing of alcohol and drugs can encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to partake in the community lifestyle. In this way, older generations influence younger generations in using alcohol and drugs.
  • Disruption to family roles and belonging—Young people feel the intergenerational pain and suffering from the centuries of oppression, exclusion, violence and social injustices that their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents have lived and survived.
    Traditionally, women and men have vital roles in guiding, mentoring and helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in meeting their responsibilities to the land and spirits. Colonisation has meant that many young people are disconnected from family roles, traditions, country and land. This increases their vulnerability to problematic AOD use.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity—Adolescence is the time of discovering yourself. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, this means building a strong identity, spirit and belonging. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who have been taken away from their family, kin or country are without the connections they need to support the development of their identity.

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