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.