by Deborah MacNamara (Aug 1, 2015)
There is a growing problem among children that is not commonly understood despite being insidious and far-reaching. It serves to make parenting and sometimes teaching a challenge, if not a nightmare. The problem is one of dominance – when the relational dance between an adult and child becomes inverted.(1) The child is attached to the adult but not in the right order or hierarchy. Instead of seeing their adult as the one to lead them, the child is emotionally and instinctively moved to displace their parent’s alpha role. This is not something the child has learned, rather; it is rooted in innate alpha and dependency instincts in humans.
The challenge lies in seeing the alpha problem for what it is – a child driven by instincts to avoid the vulnerability of depending on their closest attachments for care taking.(2) They have taken their attachment needs in their own hands.
Alpha children are often described by their adults as bossy, commanding, demanding, and insatiable. Alpha children see themselves as the ones who should call the shots and tell adults how to take care of them. Children who have risen to the alpha position with adults are consistently full of resistance and opposition for those who try and lead them. They are often very frustrated, lashing out often, and can be filled with anxiety. They steadfastly see themselves as the boss of the house and don’t understand when others try and tell them what to do as if they were in charge. The issue for children in the dominant or alpha position is not one of strength as it is often misperceived; rather, one of desperation. For some reason the child has lost faith in their providers to take care of them so their only instinctive recourse is to do it themselves.
There are obvious and not so obvious reasons why children lose faith in their caretakers. It is easy to appreciate how children whose parents are neglectful or consumed with their own pursuits and addictions can convey the message that children would be better off taking care of themselves. If these were the only conditions under which we were seeing an increase in Alpha children then the problem would seem clear cut and obvious enough. Dominance issues are also found in loving and caring homes with parents who are dedicated to helping their children grow up to be socially and emotionally responsible individuals. What is giving rise to the increasing numbers of children in the dominant position and how can we start to make sense out of this?
What is at the Root of Alpha Problems in Children?
In order to make headway we need to go back to the beginning and ask, what does a child need most in life? The answer is attachment, the invitation to exist in another’s presence, to be seen and loved for who one is, and to feel a sense of belonging, loyalty, and similarity to those they are connected to. The critical piece that often gets missed in understanding attachment is that its role is to render a child dependent on those around them. This means being dependent on someone for their care taking and well-being – an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.
As an adult it is easy to lose sight of the vulnerability involved in depending on another but I am reminded of it every time I get into a taxi or an airplane. I find myself questioning whether I can trust this person to safely deliver me to my destination and take good care of me. It gives a whole new appreciation to the phrase “back seat driver.”
When we are dependent on another we scan and look for signs that our trust and care is well placed. Is there something solid in this person that we can lean against and find fertile ground in? We might think we are conveying this message as parents but the question is whether it is believed by our children? Sometimes children are born too sensitive for this world and see and feel too much, making it hard to have them feel someone is indeed big enough and can take care of them.
There are many other reasons why children seek the dominant position in their relationships with adults including adverse experiences with too much separation-based discipline, egalitarian parenting or when parents struggle to find an alpha stance in the home that is both firm and caring. Sometimes it is a tragic accident or a big loss for the child that turns the tables in the home, where the child becomes unsure whether anyone can truly keep them safe. There are many reasons why alpha problems appear and it is found in all types of homes regardless of ethnicity, parental education level, socioeconomic status, and approach to parenting.
When a child feels in charge of orchestrating their care taking the biggest mistake we could make is to confuse this display of strength with maturity or independence. It simply is not so, it is an act of desperation and the need to bring this child to rest in the care of others is great. The critical issue is that when children are in the lead they cannot take care of their attachment needs and also attend to the business of growing up – there is a sacrifice play to be had. Attachment trumps maturation any day and the need to survive and take care of oneself rises to the fore at the expense of rest, play, and further growth.
Restoring the Parenting Lead with An Alpha Child
The good news is there is much that can be done to restore our rightful place with an alpha child. Parenting was never meant to be a nightmare and there is much hope to turn it around when it has become so. Underneath an alpha child’s dominant behaviour is a hidden desperation to depend on someone who will assume responsibility for them. The task is to convincingly demonstrate through an adult’s caring dominance that they are their best bet and indeed the answer they seek. The challenge is to regain the lead in the caretaking dance so the child can be freed from their alpha stance.
The challenge lies in seeing the alpha child for what they are – a child driven by instincts to avoid the vulnerability of depending on their closest attachments for care taking. This is not a learned problem but an instinctual and emotional one. Many people confuse their behavior with independence and leadership rather than understanding the desperation that drives it. Alpha children are trying to take care of themselves and feel safe in the world – a task too big for any child to take on.
The behaviour problems that arise are symptomatic of the underlying issue of being moved to take charge. They can’t be told what to do because they are moved to tell others how to take care of them. They resist control because they must be the one to call the shots. They are frustrated because their relational needs aren’t being met, and they often won’t eat from their caretaker’s hands because that would court dependency on them. If we do not see the root of the problems with the alpha child as an attachment one we will attack the symptoms, often exacerbating the alpha complex.
The only lasting solution that can render an alpha child unstuck is to regain the lead in the parent/child relationship. To do so requires a parent to focus on inviting the child to depend upon them and establishing a caring dominance – in spite of the behaviour problems. An alpha child is a stuck child. Everything works in reverse with their closest attachments bearing the brunt of the worst behavior. Natural parenting instincts no longer guide and work with an alpha child; one is usually baffled to make sense.
Six Steps to Inviting an Alpha Child to Depend
Given the intense resistance and opposition of the alpha child along with frustration and aggression, it is common to hear that the child needs a ‘harder hand’ to teach them a lesson. Alpha problems do not arise from failed lessons but from a lack of reliance on a caretaker. If the response to an alpha child is to exploit their dependency, remove things, punish, lord one’s authority over a child, this will do little to court reliance on a parent. At the same time, you cannot give in to demands or fail to lead through the storms that occur. The place that one must lead an alpha child from is caring dominance – the parent is in charge and the child will not experience their care as adverse and unsafe. It is only through warmth, generosity, and being able to set limits while dealing with upset that will convincingly demonstrate that a parent is their best bet.
Find your alpha stance – One of the biggest strategies for taming an alpha child is to lead from one’s own alpha stance. You need to convey to the child at every turn that you can take care of them. Finding the place inside of you that wants to take care of them, sees yourself as being strong enough, and able to take care of them is a must. You may not always feel this way but putting your best foot forward in this respect is critical. If a child with an alpha complex sees they baffle and defy their caretakers, the trust in their care will not be gained. While there will be times a child gets very frustrated because you won’t give in to their demands, the feeling of being too much or overwhelming for their caretakers will only reinforce their alpha stance.
Invite dependence – To invite dependence the parent must make it safe to be depended upon. Adversarial relating only exacerbates a child’s alpha stance. When parental authority is used to control the child by taking things away or denying agreed upon privileges in order to gain compliance, this will do little to build trust. Time outs and other forms of separation based discipline can convey to the child the relationship is conditional and based on good behavior only. A parent must steer through stormy behavior by not using their power in an adverse way or in coercing compliance. A parent must lead through the storm and convey they can handle the child and will find a way through. In the middle of conflict, sidestepping the battle and talking about the child’s feelings and behavior after the fact can go a long way to preserving both the dignity of the child and the parent.
Take the lead in activities – An effective strategy with an alpha child is to find windows of opportunity where the child must depend on their adult for care. Leaving the house and taking the child on an outing can achieve this. Many alpha children refuse to go out of the house largely due to the request coming from their adult (putting them in charge) and because their house is also their safe kingdom. Despite their protests, getting them out and leading them to a new place can dislodge their alpha stance temporarily. Activities outside of the house can buy the parent a window of opportunity to get into the lead and demonstrate to the child they can be trusted to take care of them. It is also a great time to capitalize on a child’s need to depend on you for care when they are sick or in trouble. Jumping into a strong care taking mode and helping them get better or find a way through their problems conveys a sense you can be counted upon.
Meet their needs instead of demands – One of the challenges with an alpha child is they will make many demands of their caretakers. You cannot take care of a child by meeting their demands because they are still in charge of orchestrating their care taking. What is required is to meet their needs instead of their demands. One strategy to achieve this is to actually trump their requests by giving them more than they ask for. For example, if an alpha children demands a parent dress them by putting on their socks and shoes (despite being able to do it themself), instead of meeting their request and complying, you can trump them and make it your idea in the first place. You could tell the child you were just about to do this for them or how much you love getting them dressed and that everyone just needs to feel taken care of sometimes. When the parent trumps the demand and provides for the underlying need (to be cared for), it communicates to the child that the parent understands them, can take care of them, and can be counted upon. While some parents have a hard time moving to trump their demanding child, it is the one of the best ways through with an alpha child. You cannot meet their demands but must meet their needs and lead.
Don’t court alpha battles with a child – Things to avoid with an alpha child include negotiating with them as if they were an equal and consulting with them on matters regarding their care. Sometimes parents ask too many questions related to care taking, e.g., are you hungry, tired, feel like going to the park, instead of reading the child’s needs and providing for them. Leading a child means conveying you know what they need and moving to take care of them from this place. Furthermore, conveying one’s fears or that a child hurts you only reinforces their alpha stance as well.
Hide your needs – Hiding one’s needs is critical or the child will read the parental fears or concerns and potentially move them to take charge or care of their parent. If a child moves to take care of a parent then communicating to them that this is not necessary and that it is the parent’s job to take care of them will reinforce the caretaker’s position. While life may be difficult and hard for parents, leaning on other adults and shielding a child from one’s adult-size troubles can protect the parent/child relationship from inverting. It can be challenging to hide one’s emotions and reactions in light of a child’s difficult behaviour. It can be helpful to bear in mind that the child is moved to assert dominance and it is nature’s way to preserve the child when they have lost faith in their provider.
It is also important not to give up hope and be consumed with guilt and grief about where things have come to with one’s child. The way through is to live and breathe each step forward with the alpha child as if you were their answer. It may mean that you have to discover the alpha parent in you. It may also mean that you have to lean heavily into your love for the child and form strong intentions to turn things around. It will mean you will need to believe in yourself as the answer to your child and lead them to seeing you as their best bet. It will require searching for answers to making headway inside oneself with insight and understanding guiding you.
If we can see the alpha child for what they are, we can better demonstrate to them we are the answer they seek. When an adult regains the lead through caring dominance, the child will rest in the caretaking offered and be freed of their hunger for connection.
Gordon Neufeld, Alpha Children: Reclaiming Our Rightful Place in Their Lives, course (Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, 2013), http://neufeldinstitute.org/course/alpha-children/.
The construct of the ‘Alpha child’ and hierarchical attachment is part of Gordon Neufeld’s unique theoretical work and contribution to developmental and relational science. For more information please go to the Neufeld Institute – www.neufeldinstitute.org or see Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate’s book – Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents need to Matter More than Peers.
Copyright Dr. Deborah MacNamara
Deborah MacNamara is a clinical counsellor and educator, on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and author of Rest, Play, Grow – Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). She has more than 25 years experience working with children, youth, and adults and speaks regularly about child and adolescent development to parents, childcare providers, educators, and mental health professionals. Please see www.macnamara.ca for more information.