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Six steps for parenting ‘Alpha children’

Young girl's face
Credit: iStock.com/Juanmonino

In many ways almost every parent will relate to one or more of the following; your child doesn't listen, your child isn't interested in doing what you ask, and what’s more, they consider themselves to be the "top dog".

But while all young children are somewhat ego driven, one expert says that for some families the problem of who's in charge goes a lot further than that.

Canadian-based clinical counsellor, educator and author of Rest, Play, Grow – Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), Dr Deborah MacNamara says there are a group of "Alpha children” who can make parenting a challenge.

"It's a problem of dominance," Dr MacNamara says of the Alpha child phenomena.

"If you have an Alpha child on your hands then the relational dance between an adult and child becomes inverted. Your child is attached to you, but the hierarchy is incorrect,” she says, noting that Alpha children are moved to direct the parent on how to care for them rather than taking for granted that the parent knows how to care for them.

Generally speaking, when a child has moved into the dominant position in the parent/child relationship it doesn’t feel natural to follow, obey, take orders from their caretakers. It’s chronic and enduring. The parents will often be exhausted and tired of a child not listening nor following them.
Dr Deborah MacNamara

An Alpha child might be described by their parent as being demanding, bossy or commanding in a way that goes beyond the average preschooler’s feeling that the world revolves around him or her.

“Yes, four-year-olds can be full of resistance and frustration at times but can also easily follow their adults at other times,” says Dr MacNamara.

“Generally speaking, when a child has moved into the dominant position in the parent/child relationship it doesn’t feel natural to follow, obey, take orders from their caretakers. It’s chronic and enduring. The parents will often be exhausted and tired of a child not listening nor following them,” she says.

Re-establishing a parent's role as head of the house

According to Dr MacNamara, there is no particular family structure, age or stage where Alpha children are more prominent, perhaps in part because she believes it's not a learned role, but a response rooted in deep human instincts.

“The instinct to become an Alpha child and take the lead is provoked when the adults don't lead, or when there is a challenge with the child's environment and (in the child’s eyes) that adult can't ensure the child's safety," she says.

Dr MacNamara says some of the reasons children can lose faith in their caretakers are obvious – for example if their parents are actively neglectful – but dominance issues are also found in loving and caring homes.

“The root of it is all connected to attachment. However, we forget that attachment is an incredibly vulnerable position to be in," Dr McNamara says.

She stresses that the response is not something children actively choose.

“It is instinctive. Children need to be dependent given they are immature and need a guide to lead them. Fostering relationships where a child can rest in the care of others is a requirement for good growth,” she says.

To get it right, Dr MacNamara says parents of an Alpha child need to re-establish their own role as head of the house; an act that allows their child to ‘relinquish’ the struggle for dominance.

She says if they use too hard a hand the child will not trust their parent, but if they do not lead and invite dependence, a child will not follow them.

“Parents [often] struggle to bring their own Alpha stance into the home. It’s a balance of being both firm and caring,” Dr MacNamara says.

She believes egalitarian parenting, which can offer children too many choices can create problems for an Alpha child.

"We need to take the lead and not put them in charge of things we should be in charge of, for example what to eat or when to sleep,” she says.

For Alpha children, separation-based discipline like a ‘timeout’ may not work, as it withdraws the offer of ‘connecting’ with the child.

“This makes the relationship conditional, if not adversarial. The child may feel they have to work to be good enough in order to be close to their parent, instead of resting in their care and being able to take their relationship for granted,” Dr MacNamara says.

Six Steps to invite dependence

So what does work?  Below, Dr MacNamara outlines six steps to helping parents and carers invite their Alpha child to depend on them again.

Step 1. Find your own Alpha stance.

At every step, convey to your child that you can take care of them. Resist the urge to take things away or deny them privileges to get them to do as you ask: that won't help them build trust.

“It is about taking the lead in caring for a child and not letting their behaviour break that connection," Dr McNamara says.

Step 2. Invite dependence.

As a parent, your role is to make it safe for your child to depend on you. Post conflict, encouraging your child to talk about their feelings and behaviour can go a long way to achieving this.

Step 3. Take the lead in activities.

Some Alpha children may not be keen to leave the house too often (after all in this space it’s easy for them to depend only on themselves). Finding windows of opportunity to head out on an outing where your child needs to depend on you for their care can be a great way to "temporarily dislodge their Alpha stance”.

Step 4. Meet their needs instead of their demands.

Every child is adept at making demands of their parents or carers, but Alpha children’s demands can be incessant.

Think about what they need instead of what they are demanding, and find ways to "trump" these by giving them more than they ask for. One example Dr MacNamara uses is that of a child who insists on their parents dressing them, despite the ability to do this themselves.

“You could tell the child you love getting them dressed and that everyone needs to feel taken care of sometimes. This communicates to the child that their parent understands them, can take care of them and can be counted upon," she says.

Step 5. Don’t court battles.

Hard as it may be it’s important to avoid too much consultation with your Alpha child about matters involving their care.

“When a child doesn’t follow you or take your direction, it generally will go poorly when you give them direct orders. You need to be thoughtful about how you handle things when you need the child to follow you,” Dr MacNamara says.

Step 6. Hide your needs.

While it can be hard to hide your own needs sometimes, and especially hard to hide your own emotions if your child is behaving badly, Dr MacNamara says it's critical to keep these feelings under wraps. Remember, for Alpha children their assertions of dominance are a natural instinct that kicks in if they feel their parent is no longer able to lead the caretaking.