Changing the story: Turning around lateral violence

two aboriginal women talking and smiling

This article was produced through a partnership with Cox Inall Ridgeway, an Aboriginal social change agency. This article has been written and reviewed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are part of strong living cultures that have continued to thrive for thousands of years. Our communities have had to overcome and persevere through huge losses and injustices, due to colonisation. Ours is a history of survival and resilience, with strength and identity grounded in connection to family, community, culture, spirituality and Country.

However, the continuing impacts of trauma and disconnection can sometimes cause conflict within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. When people are angry, hurt, frustrated or powerless, they may feel safer venting their frustrations on those closest to them. This is called ‘lateral violence’. (‘Lateral’ means ‘sideways’.) Lateral violence is mob undermining each other, which creates division in communities.

Lateral violence can take the form of:

  • gossiping

  • blaming

  • shaming

  • judging

  • social exclusion

  • physical violence

  • microaggressions

  • questioning a person’s mob or identity.

Lateral violence and fighting between families can move through generations. It places pressure on kinship networks and relationships. Lateral violence can make people feel reluctant to take on leadership positions, or insecure in their identity, and or disconnected from their sources of strength and belonging. Sometimes when people feel that they have no power in their own lives, they may try to exert power over other people in the wrong way.

Aboriginal writer and musician Richard J. Frankland says: ‘Lateral violence comes from being colonised, invaded. It comes from being told you are worthless and treated as being worthless for a long period of time. Naturally you don’t want to be at the bottom of the pecking order, so you turn on your own.’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are standing up to lateral violence

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are calling for our mob to stand up to lateral violence and not accept it within our communities. It’s possible to break the cycle and to show our kids that this isn’t the way. We come from the world’s longest-living culture, having survived colonisation. We want to be able to look towards a future where we’re all able to thrive and support each other.

Aboriginal mental health specialist Jenny Holmes says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are extremely vulnerable when it comes to lateral violence, which can have a huge effect on their lives and social and emotional wellbeing. She says it’s time to start having uncomfortable discussions and confronting lateral violence.

‘It is not about shame; it is about learning from it, accepting what it has done and moving forward. Exposing lateral violence as part of trauma and realising the longer we as a people hide from this the more damage it causes.’

How to avoid participating in lateral violence and encourage healing

Some people say that the opposite of lateral violence is ‘lateral love’, or ‘lateral healing’. We can set the example of being supportive of each other, standing up for each other and being on the same side.

It isn’t always easy, but when you hear someone say something unkind about another person, don’t believe everything you hear and don’t spread it further. Remember: everyone is dealing with challenges you might not even know about, and engaging in this behaviour can create further pain in our communities. You can stop it from getting bigger. Try talking to people privately, in a quiet and calm way. If we treat people with respect and patience, we can break the cycle of lateral violence.

Listen to and share stories in ways that make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities stronger. Look for places you can learn about and practise culture. Get in touch with where you are from and connect to Country. It’s important to make time to talk about and engage with positive things. Celebrate achievements and our people’s cultures, skills, knowledge and resilience, not just the problems and injustices.

Helping your child to deal with lateral violence

As a parent, you might have to manage your own responses to lateral violence while at the same time supporting your kids through it. The best thing you can do is be an open listener and a safe place for them to go for help.

If your child is avoiding going to school because they’re afraid of being bullied or teased, it can be tempting to keep them at home until things settle down. But schools have a responsibility to keep children safe, so you can contact the school and ask them how they’re managing bullying behaviour and what things they have in place to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

If the school is unsupportive, you can make a complaint to your state’s Education Department. If the situation doesn’t improve, consider moving your child to another school. We understand that some parents may not be able to do this, due to limited resources or options. Check out the services below that can support you and your child with next steps.

Building strength in your young person

The best way to turn around lateral violence is to encourage positive behaviours and a strong cultural connection in your family. Try the following:

  • Be a strong role model. Don’t speak negatively about family members or other people in the community. Be respectful, patient and encouraging when talking with and about others. Your child will copy the way you talk about other people.

  • Stay calm and relaxed if you learnt that your child has been involved in gossiping, bullying or harmful behaviour. Reassure them that you’re there for them no matter what they’ve done or said. But also let them know about the importance of treating people with respect, and that bullying and other harmful behaviours are unacceptable.

  • Help your child get involved with things they enjoy and that make them feel good about themselves, such as hobbies, sports and creative activities.

  • Help your child to develop pride in their cultural connection and identity by getting involved in cultural activities at home and in the community. Keeping them connected to their family, community and Country will help them to build resilience and encourage positive connections.

It’s also important to remember that parents and carers are best placed to look out for our children if we are well supported ourselves. Try to:

  • Check in on your stress levels. Make time to exercise, socialise and stay well.

  • Talk to other parents about lateral violence that is impacting their kids.

  • Find an Elder or other trusted adult you can talk openly with and ask for their help if you need it.

Where to get more information or support

  • 13YARN – A national helpline for Indigenous people who are going through a tough time and feel like having a yarn. All of the operators are Indigenous people who are trained to support you without judgement and to provide a confidential, culturally safe space to yarn about your needs, worries or concerns. Call 13 92 76 (24 hours a day).

  • Kids Helpline – A free Australian telephone and online counselling service for young people aged between 5 and 25. Call 1800 55 1800 (24 hours a day; speak or online chat with trained counsellors).

  • Lifeline – A free 24-hour phone service that provides support to anyone experiencing emotional distress. Call 13 11 14 (24 hours a day).

  • Beyond Blue Support Service – A mental health and wellbeing support organisation that provides help in addressing issues related to depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental illnesses. Call 1300 22 4636 (24 hours a day; speak in confidence with a trained counsellor).

Note that the above services have policies in place to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and may have qualified Aboriginal counsellors.

  • Yarn Safe – A Headspace service that provides information to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, encouraging individuals to talk when they are going through a hard time. Users can access information and support on mental health and wellbeing, stress and pressure, relationships, alcohol and drugs, and Yarn Safe stories.

  • WellMob – Online resources for mob about social, emotional and cultural wellbeing issues and healing.

  • Youth Law Australia – A national service that provides free confidential legal information and help for young people under 25.

  • Parentline – A state- and territory-based phone line that provides parents, carers and professionals with confidential and non-judgemental advice and support.

  • SNAICC – A national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that has information to support carers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

  • Raising Children’s Network – Provides a directory of services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship carers.

  • Carer Gateway – An Australian Government website with services and support for carers. Look for information on the website, use the service finder, or call the national helpline: Phone 1800 422 737.

  • Solid Kids, Solid School, Solid Families – Information about bullying, written directly for children, parents and schools.

ReachOut acknowledges we are not an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation and cannot go into a lot of detail regarding lateral violence. We understand this is an issue for many communities, and we feel it is important to start the conversation and provide links and resources to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content.