Hyper-masculinity, War And Intergenerational Trauma

Veterans with PTSD find it very difficult to deal with emotions like fear and sadness when they come up. They don't want to admit to themselves that they have those feelings, so they push them down and try to ignore them.

Over the last century there's been a growing awareness that men return from war with not just physical injuries, but also with psychological injuries. These days, we call it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Back in World War I they called it shell shock, if you were lucky, and they said it was a very un-manly thing because it was actually the female disorder called hysteria. If you weren't so lucky, they called it cowardice and executed you for it.

It wasn't until the late 1960's that we noticed that the children of people who'd been in war, had higher rates of psychological issues. That's when the term inter-generational trauma was invented.

Following the wars in Vietnam and now in the middle east, we're increasingly aware of how important it is for war veterans with PTSD to get professional help for their condition. It's important, not only for their wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of their children.

Why don't some veterans get support?

Unfortunately, many male veterans of war are reluctant to acknowledge that they have PTSD and to seek help for it.

They don't seek professional help, for the same reason that many men don't seek help with their psychological issues. It's primarily to do with their desire to conform to the traditional masculine stereotype - where a masculine man must be stoic in the face of adversity and is not allowed to feel emotions like fear, sadness, doubt, guilt or compassion. The only emotions that are allowed are anger and aggression.

In the military, this masculine archetype is taken to the extreme - it becomes hyper-masculinity. This hyper-masculinity is drilled into soldiers over and over again. At any sign of weakness, their superiors shout at them, "Don't be a wuss. Don't be a wimp. Don't be such a little girl!"

Therefore, veterans with PTSD find it very difficult to deal with emotions like fear and sadness when they come up. They don't want to admit to themselves that they have those feelings, so they push them down and try to ignore them.

It's even harder for veterans to tell their military colleagues that they have these emotions, because they feel these emotions are signs that they have failed as a soldier and as a man. They're embarrassed to talk about it and they're afraid that their colleagues will reject them - and in many cases, their comrades do reject them.

So in addition to their PTSD, veterans feel ashamed that they've failed to live up to the standards of hyper-masculinity, and they feel isolated and rejected by their friends, and that makes their PTSD and depression even worse.

Many veterans with PTSD try to maintain the facade of hyper-masculinity, but that stops them from getting the professional help that they need - and not getting professional help for themselves can lead to worse outcomes for their children.

Even those veterans who do get professional treatment may still negatively influence their children, but if hyper-masculinity is preventing you from getting treatment, then it just makes everything worse for everyone involved.

Effects on children

Children of veterans with PTSD may be affected in a number of ways; they may be more depressed, anxious, aggressive, hyperactive, delinquent and have difficulty making friends.

Children with PTSD

In a small number of cases, a child may start experiencing PTSD symptoms that are similar to their parent's symptoms. For example, they may have nightmares about what their parent experienced. This happens because the parent has passed the PTSD trauma on to their child. This is what's called intergenerational trauma, and it can be passed on in a number of ways:

  • In some cases, the parent refuses to talk about their traumatic experiences. Therefore the child can only imagine what must have happened to the parent, to cause their terrible symptoms; and in some cases, the child imagines things that are even more horrifying than what the parent actually experienced.
  • In other cases, it's the opposite situation - the parent frequently discusses their traumatic experiences in great detail, creating vivid pictures in the child's mind.
  • Other children might start to identify with the parent and in order to connect more closely with the parent, they start to share the parent's symptoms.

Children with other psychological issues

It's much more common, though, for children to develop other psychological issues, such as anxiety, depression and behavioural issues, than it is for them to develop their own form of PTSD.

These psychological issues result from the child being exposed to specific symptoms of their parent's PTSD. Many parents without PTSD also have similar behaviours that will also produce similar issues in their children.

For example, if the parent with PTSD self-medicates with alcohol and becomes an alcoholic, then the children are likely to experience the same psychological issues that children of all alcoholics are likely to experience.

If a parent has irrational outbursts of anger over seemingly inconsequential things, then it's likely that their children won't trust them. The children then find it difficult to trust other people - if they can't trust their parent, who can they trust? This means the child may have difficulty making close friends.

What can we do?

  • End all wars

    The first thing, of course, is that we should try to have as few wars as possible.

  • Remove hyper-masculinity from military culture
  • The second thing, you might think of, would be to take the hyper-masculinity out of the military culture.

    But I don't think it's wise to tell soldiers that it's okay to fully feel their emotions when they're in battle, because that will get them killed.

    • We can't tell them that when they see their best friend killed in front of them, that it's okay to break down in tears and fully feel and express their grief.
    • We can't tell them that it's okay, in the heat of battle, to let themselves be overwhelmed with fear and curl up on the ground and whimper with terror.

  • Help the children
  • The easiest and most obvious thing we can do is to help the children. We can:

    • Explain what their parent is going through, so that the child doesn't feel that they're somehow the cause of what their parent is experiencing, and the child can have more compassion and understanding for the parent.
    • Help the child with whatever psychological issues they have already developed.

  • Help the veterans
  • We also need to help the parent with PTSD. That's particularly difficult if they want to remain in combat role in the military, because being in combat roles requires hyper-masculinity. And holding on to hyper-masculinity makes it almost impossible for any type of psychological therapy to succeed.

    If you want to get to the core of your psychological issues, then you can't be suppressing and denying your feelings. You've got to start by acknowledging and accepting your situation and your feelings, so that you can soften and open and have some compassion for yourself.

    This is something that applies to all men, even those that haven't been traumatised by war.

    Hyper-masculinity is toxic. It's a straight-jacket that keeps you from being who you truly are. It prevents you from being able to overcome your psychological issues. And if you're a father, then it increases the chance that you'll create psychological issues in your children.

    So if you're a hyper-masculine man, I encourage you to give it up, and if you won't give it up for you own benefit, then please give it up for the benefit of your children.

Whatever your trauma is, whether it's caused by war, or by an abusive or dysfunctional parent, please don't pass it on to your children. It's time to break the cycle and leave the war zone in the past, where it belongs. It's time to have the courage to look at what's going on inside ourselves - to acknowledge our emotions and heal our psychological wounds and move on. It's time to create a better life for ourselves and our children.

How can men do that? A good first step is to join a men's group. They're safe, supportive spaces where men can practice dropping the hyper-masculine facade and explore how we feel. We can learn from the experiences of one another and learn how to heal.

I run men's groups and individual private sessions in London and online.