Dr. Craig Childress is perhaps the leading expert on identifying the pathology behind parental alienation. One of the animating forces of the pathology that he has identified is called the “false trauma reenactment pattern.” This term describes when the alienating parent reenacts childhood trauma by projecting roles onto people in the present day. The targeted parent is thus cast as the “abusive parent,” and the child is manipulated into accepting the role of the ”victimized child”; the role that the alienating parent played in childhood. The alienating parent casts himself or herself as the all-powerful and all-good “protective parent,” proudly displaying this to the rest of the world. By doing so, the alienating parent gets to stand up to the abuse he or she herself experienced, and which likely led to the development of his /her narcissistic or borderline personality disorder.
One of the other key players in this pathology drama is the “bystander.” The alienating parent – likely for validation – attempts to recruit as many allies as possible in this reenactment, especially from amongst the professionals who are involved with the family. Recruits could be mental health professionals, lawyers, religious leaders, teachers or principals – any third party that is willing to support the alienating parent’s scenario.
The “bystander” accepts the alienating parent’s story at face value, often with no independent corroboration. The “bystander” then colludes with the “protective parent” to facilitate the false trauma reenactment – and thus further the cause of alienating the targeted parent.
Here’s an example of such a “bystander” as reported in a New York case, Labanowski v Labanowski. In this case, the court cited an example where an alienating mother was ordered by the court to drive the children to the home of the paternal grandparents for a family reunion visit. Instead, the maternal grandfather decided to do something different.
Here’s how this is reported in the case:
“However, on the morning of the reunion visit, the mother's father called his treating physician and longtime friend, a medical doctor, and arranged for the mother to bring the children to the doctor's office. After listening to their complaints and examining them, the doctor concluded that they were ‘emotionally upset,’ recommending against the trip. The mother thereafter informed the father by phone that the children would not be making the trip.”
Luckily in this case, the court was having none of it. Even though the term “bystander” wasn’t used, the court spotted the doctor’s role as such. Here’s how the court dealt with the doctor’s recommendation:
“Notably, the doctor had been aware of the difficulties between the mother and father through conversations socially and professionally with the maternal grandparents and with the mother who had recently become his patient. Supreme Court, justifiably, gave little weight to the doctor's diagnoses.”
Perhaps you’ve had to deal with a “bystander” in your situation. These situations can be very complex. The motivation of the “bystander” to act in such a way that is incongruent with the best interest of the child is difficult to understand; it may be rooted in the bystander’s own childhood trauma. However, understanding the pattern that is involved may help you recognize what is happening and navigate your situation.
For more information on the false trauma reenactment pattern and a better understanding of the pathology, refer to Foundations by Dr. Craig Childress (2015).
What can you do if you find yourself in such false trauma reenactment? That's a difficult question, unfortunately, and Simply Parent would no doubt love to hear practical advice (firstname.lastname@example.org). Note, however, that if the “bystander” in your circumstance is a medical health professional, the ethical rules governing his or her behaviour probably demand (they do in the US) a consultation with both parents before making a recommendation on custody.