Mike Muller is on the Advisory Board for Thuy Smith International Outreach. He is a Vietnam Veteran and has been a Psychologist counseling veterans for many years.  He writes novels under the pen name of Michael FitzGordon.   

I remember when I was in graduate school in the 1970s after I had returned from the war in Vietnam. I knew almost nothing about PTSD—it hadn’t been formally recognized yet! Nor did I know that I had some symptoms of PTSD. In retrospect I can see them. I remember reading an article about the children of survivors of the Holocaust, and how the children were damaged and depressed because their parents, the Holocaust survivors, were damaged and depressed. Despite having no knowledge of PTSD as a formal entity (neither did the authors of the article), I remember feeling somewhat incensed at the attitude that these survivors, both generations, were somehow damaged because they did not fit into society. Yet even at that time the research was also clearly showing that “depressed” people often had a much more accurate perception of themselves than did other people. “Normal” people (normal meaning that they fit into society) consistently had self-perceptions that were distorted in a positive direction. It seemed to me then, and still does, that the Holocaust survivors were the ones who had the more accurate perception of humanity, society, and human nature. They knew what people were like. It was the “normal” people who were fighting to deny or dissociate from the truth. So it is that the survivors of the Holocaust know that they need to keep fighting for people to remember what happened, and for people to know what people are capable of doing so that history does not repeat itself.

It seems to me that the children of the survivors were caught in the middle between these two warring perceptions of reality. On the one hand their parents probably feared their children were being drawn into the same “normal” mindlessness that leads to so much misery in the world, while on the other hand the children’s “normal” friends thought they needed to have a more cheerful, positive attitude, and join them in the happy land of denial and illusions. I would hope that all of us would work out our own view of the world, and not uncritically (and most often unconsciously) adopt the world views of others. Having an independent world view can get you in trouble with your friends, who become uncomfortable when your views seem to contradict or challenge theirs. This dynamic does seem to be prominent in the history of humanity, in which groups of people feel they must compel others by force, war, torture, and imprisonment to think the way they do. Historically it seems that human migration is often caused by the need to escape from those who would kill us or otherwise compel us to think the way they do. People seem to feel very threatened when others do not think the way they do. We can only wish that each of us would treat with respect those who disagree with us, and that others would treat us with respect also.

So when we speak of “intergenerational” PTSD, I think we are speaking of children who are caught in the middle of these warring perceptions. On the one hand their parents’ “normal” assumptions and illusions have been shattered and replaced with more accurate perceptions of reality that are not shared by society. On the other hand they hear the siren call of society drawing them into their happy illusions.

Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, did not write that the ones who survived in the concentration camps were those who maintained a cheerful, optimistic outlook. That would be absurd. He wrote that those who survived were those who had a reason and meaning to survive. The ones who had something they wanted to accomplish, or someone they were yearning to be with again, survived. Given this reason or meaning to live, they could endure all the pain and suffering that was heaped on them. I do not believe that people should whine, complain, moan, and cry out about how terrible life and human nature are. But I do think that people should probably weep, moan, and cry out in pain much more than they do. Then they should listen to their own cries and pay attention to what is wrong and what needs to be changed. They should also be able to be pleasant, joyful, and thankful when life presents its kind beauties and tender mercies.

Often the children of those with PTSD will criticize their parents for not being more like “normal” people. I wish that these children could gain some perspective, and see both of sides of these warring perceptions. They do not need to say that their parents are wrong and society is right, nor the reverse. And sometimes the intensity is heightened still more when children are also caught between the perceptions of warring parents, each of which is putting terrible pressure on the child to think the way they do, and to choose sides! Of course, by being independent thinkers they will nonetheless always be to a degree outsiders. Sometimes independent thinking will be rewarded and honored by others, but most often, almost by definition, it will not be honored and rewarded.

Related Posts by Mike:

Mike Muller- MACV CORDS operations advisor, Binh Chanh District, 1970.  Briefing officer for DEPCORDS Ambassador Funkhouser to CG & staff, III Corps Vietnam, 1971.  In addition to briefing the staff I briefed visiting officials such as the Secretary of the Army.  I was in Vietnam for one tour.

Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, we can supply you with a list of available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.

10 thoughts on “Intergenerational PTSD–What is it really? (Part One)

  1. This makes so much sense! I’ve been trying to figure out how to bridge the gaps between my 3 grown children, and me. With my history of severe complex-ptsd, going all the way back to my childhood, I wasn’t the greatest mother in the world. I know I did the best I could with what I had at the time, and I love each of my children, and grandchildren, enough to give up my life to save any one of theirs, if that were necessary. But, “my best,” as a very broken mother, was nowhere near good enough, nowhere near what they needed, and deserved. For most of my life I knew something was “wrong” with me, but I didn’t know that the “something wrong,” was Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, until the year I turned 50, which was 8 years ago.. long after all of my children were grown and gone from the nest. OH how I wish I could turn back time and parent them all over again, knowing what I know now!

    1. Thank you! I’m going to send your post to each of my children, maybe it will help.

      My younger son and I were talking recently, and I told him basically what I said here in my previous comment. I told him how sorry I am that his childhood was not what it should have been, and that I was not the healthy, sane, loving, affirming mother he deserved. Stephen said, “Thanks, Mom. I wasn’t a perfect son, either. I know you did your best, and. I forgive you.”

      Then I told him: “You were a wonderful son! No one is perfect, you know, and you were just fine! I really appreciate your saying that you forgive me, but I want you to know that you don’t have to forgive me. You have the right to be angry that your childhood wasn’t what it should have been. ‘My best’ wasn’t good enough. You deserved so much better than the childhood you had. You have the right to grieve that, and to be angry about that. You were a wonderful little boy and you deserved a wonderful childhood.”

      In the silence that followed, I could almost HEAR my son thinking: “Who are you, and what have you done with my mother?” LOL….. this isn’t about beating myself up, because I DO KNOW that I did the very best with the terrible brokenness that I had. This is about validating my children’s right to grieve the safe, loving, stable, happy childhood they never had. This is about their right to feel pain and loss, and even RAGE. In my own trauma recovery, I’ve learned that I need to FEEL MY FEELINGS, and GRIEVE MY LOSSES. Telling myself that my abusers were “sick and couldn’t help themselves,” or that they were “doing the best they could with what they had,” stops me from feeling the pain and the sorrow and the anger that I NEED to feel, in order to get it all out, and heal.

      Also, I’m finding that it really is very FREEING to stop making excuses for myself! Denials, and cover-up, takes a huge amount of time energy, and it never WORKS. It feels so much better to just give all that up, and be REAL.

      I believe it’s called: Confession, Repentance, and Making Amends. Done in this way, it’s putting the focus on the hurt of those I have wronged, rather than on my “reasons and excuses” for what I did that hurt them. It puts the focus on “how can I help to undo the damage I’ve caused you?”, rather than on “I want YOU to do ME the favor of forgiving me” ~ which adds insult to injury, when you really think about it!


    1. Thank you for your kind words, Jenna. I like Janoff-Bulmann’s book, “Shattered Assumptions.” She gives a professional view, but it is very readable and accessible to anyone. I also like Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam,” which shows that people have always responded to wars in this way. I’ll send you a private e-mail from my hotmail account in regard to the trailer.

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