Learning lessons from the past to help displaced children and their families tomorrow

Two children standing in a field.

This study will look in depth at the concepts of trauma across generations and shared group trauma

  • 19 November 2019
  • 3 min read

A new study, launched at the University of Portsmouth tomorrow (20 November 2019), will aim to uncover the lessons of historic forced child migration with the aim of supporting the families of traumatised and displaced children in the future.

The UN Refugee Agency says the world is now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, with more than half of them under the age of 18.

The impact on the mental health of these millions of children is a growing global issue, one which is largely ignored. In an attempt to build a tool to help professionals work with those affected, Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten, Associate Professor in Childhood Studies at the University of Portsmouth, will now focus on the trauma faced by tens of thousands of British children who were sent to Canada between 1869 and 1932.

Initial research shows the British Home Child movement created a legacy that had a huge effect on family members in the decades that followed. Dr Sims-Schouten will look in depth at the concepts of trauma across generations (intergenerational) and shared group trauma (transgenerational).

Dr Sims-Schouten explained: “Both are controversial terms, used to highlight that chronic and acute trauma can be long-lasting and be transferred from one generation to another, via complex post-traumatic stress-disorder mechanisms.”

Dr Sims-Schouten will then compare her findings to what is happening now, to discover whether the situation has changed for those children forced to leave their homes and countries of birth.


Both are controversial terms, used to highlight that chronic and acute trauma can be long-lasting and be transferred from one generation to another, via complex post-traumatic stress-disorder mechanisms.

Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten, Associate Professor in Childhood Studies

The new research will help Dr Sims-Schouten develop a training model, known as the MACRO (Mental health and Applied Crucial Realism Operational) tool. MACRO will offer a checklist for trauma support and intervention for mental health practitioners, helping them to make sense of individual support needs of vulnerable children. This tool will be co-produced with young people and adults who have first-hand experience of trauma. These will include those who have left the care system and the Canadian descendants of British Home Children.

This new study builds on the Dr Sims-Schouten’s recently published work, in which she discovered that little has changed for victims of child abuse and those reliant on the welfare system.

The study, which compared UK data from 1881-1918 to the present day, was the first of its kind. It concluded that the most vulnerable children still miss out on crucial help. Dr Sims-Schouten discovered that the Victorian notion of ‘deservedness’ is still applied to specific children and families in the 21st Century Britain.

Dr Sims-Schouten will be speaking at an event in Portsmouth today (Wednesday 20 November) hosted by the University’s Mental Health and Wellbeing in Childhood Hub. Headlined “Trauma, Mental Health and Wellbeing in Childhood - Historic and Contemporary Perspectives”, Dr Sims-Schouten will join other academics, including Professor Hendrikus Stam from Calgary University in Canada, an expert on the forced movement of approximately 80,000 children from Britain to Canada.

Speaking before the event, Dr Wendy Sims-Schouten said: “It is important that we develop a framework to focus on the shared and inherited traumas that come from the mass displacement of children. I believe that by looking at historical and contemporary data we can find solutions that can help children today, and the future generations that are impacted by their treatment.”


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