The Lighthouse Keepers: Shining a Light on Reality

In a world which can feel unpredictable, terrifying and unsafe, the concept of Lighthouse Keeping is one which I use, to enable a sense of stability and security within for those who have suffered from the relational trauma of being rejected by a child in divorce and separation. In such circumstances, where parents are the recipients of so much negative projection, staying steady and staying sane is an almost impossible task at times. Helping parents in this position to understand what is happening and why and what the negative projections are from parents who manipulate their children (and those who support them), is the first step towards creating internal stability in a community which is constantly under attack.

This is a traumatising time to be a parent in the rejected position because there has been a systemic shift backwards, towards hiding the terrible harm which is caused to children when they are triangulated into the breakdown of parental relationships. This hiding of harm, which is being driven by the trans-atlantic campaign efforts to convince the outside world that alienation of children is only ever an allegation made by fathers to hide abuse, isn’t the first time this tide has turned away from protecting children in divorce and separation.

Having had time to read on a long train journey recently, I revisited some of the early writings of Wallerstein and Kelly and their identification of the ‘unholy alliance’ which is formed when a parent draws a vulnerable child into their interpersonal emotional and psychological responses to family change. Widely credited as being the first to raise the issue of children becoming alienated from a parent in divorce and separation in 1976, it is now forty three years since Wallerstein and Kelly undertook the research upon which their book, Surviving the Break Up How children and parents cope with divorce (1980), is based and in which they wrote about a narcissisticly enraged parent who waged war against the other parent in an unholy alliance with a vulnerable older child. During the subsequent forty three years since that work, children’s needs to be protected from exposure to adult feelings about family breakdown, have been the subject of constant conflict between parental rights advocates, the nature of which is often bitter and full of false narratives. A pattern of campaigning which continues to this day.

The Rejected Position

Finding oneself in the rejected position by a child who becomes contemptuous and grandiose in their assertions that they never want to see you again, is a frightening experience, especially against a backdrop of the (re)-emergence of claims that all rejection of parents by children is evidence that the rejected parent is abusive. Trauma, in the form of being falsely accused and all that accompanies that, is a long lasting harm which many parents in the rejected position suffer from, the ignorance of professionals only increasing the impact of that. Watching the way that campaigners against the concept of alienation of children emphasise their successes and downplay or are simply silent about their campaign failures, I am reminded that this is not about the needs of children or their right to a childhood which is free from harms of all forms, it is about winning a parental rights battle. Losing your child to this inter-personal coercive control is an individual and societal terrorism which causes long lasting reactive trauma to its victims.

Which brings us back to Lighthouse Keeping and the need to assist parents in the rejected position to recover from the traumatic impact of being rejected by a child in order to build skills for therapeutic parenting which is beneficial for children of divorce and separation who are suffering from disorganised attachment, (the underlying behavioural problem for children who are alienated). Training traumatised parents to recover from the reactive splitting which has been triggered by the abuse they have suffered at the hands of parents who influence and manipulate their children, starts with an understanding of this trauma and its pernicious impact over time. When parents who have done nothing to cause the loss of a child, (other than perhaps being in a position where they were vulnerable to the manipulations of an abusive other parent), the stripping away of the capacity to protect the self is a further level of serious harm. Being exposed to the negative projections, not only of the manipulative parent but the mocking behaviour of campaigners who project blame and shame, is a shocking and often serious trigger in the development of mental health problems caused by this trauma. Teaching parents how to understand why they are in the rejected position and, at the same time, why they are so vital in the lives of their children, leads to a recovery of the sense of self as a parent as well as the capacity to make sense of the trauma which has harmed them.

Light House Keeping depends upon the capacity to mentalise, which means to be able to keep in mind the reality of the child’s experience as well as your own. Working with the image of a lighthouse is a useful way to begin the process of learning how to mentalise for parents in the rejected position. Being able to mentalise your child’s experience means being able to see how and why they are aligned to a parent who is harming them. This enables parents to signal to their child their understanding that a child in the position of rejecting them is doing so because it is the only thing that they can do in very abnormal circumstances.

The Lighthouse Project

The Lighthouse Project is something I began in my spare time (not that I had much), at the start of the pandemic. Working online for the first time, I wanted to trial a way of working that I believed may help parents, a way of perturbing the family dynamics which are often extremely fixed, largely because parents in the rejected position become so afraid to make any changes to their behaviours for fear of repercussions. In small groups, workiing with parents all over the world, I began a process of teaching parents how to utilise a psycho-geneological approach to understanding their experience and that of their child, which changed the way that they felt about the situation. Shifting parents away from an external locus of control (the manipulating parent), towards an internal locus of control (their own self), I found that when the parent in the rejected position shifted, the internal systemic dynamic shifted and for many parents, this triggered a reaction in the outer world which brought their children on a path back home.

The principle of changing the inner to create change on the outer level is based on the principle of structural and systemic family therapy (in that if you make changes in one area of the family system, other changes have to occur in reaction to that) and psychoanalytical understanding of the layer upon layer of transgenerational trauma which is often unresolved in families where children align with a parent and reject the other. This inter-generational seam of unresolved trauma in divorce and separation, which I have been excavating for the past decade, is the source of the behaviours which cause children to become alienated from their own authentic sense of self as they join with a ‘narcissisticly enraged parent in an unholy alliance to eradicate the demonised parent’.

Building that beam to expose the reality of what is happening to children, whilst lighting the path for them to come back home to their own sense of self as well as the relationship with the parent in the rejected position, is what Lighthouse Keeping is truly about. Lighthouse keepers not only hold their own selves steady in the face of that, they shine a light on this trauma to show the world what is really happening when children align with one parent and reject the other in divorce and separation.

This article written by Karen Woodall (Psychotherapist, Writer, Researcher & Trainer) is published here with her permission.

Posted by Sinta Ebersohn (Founder of – Hoedspruit RSA)