7 Mar · Karen Melton · No Comments

Were you an Alpha Child? – Or are you Parenting an Alpha Child?

Alphas are those children who are “in charge” in some way in the family. They tend to be demanding, bossy, want everything their way, are controlling, and often won’t listen to direction, boundaries or authority. Usually, underneath all of this rather difficult and stressful behavior is a desperate unhappy child. The desperation arises from being too young to handle the very big job of trying to be in the “parent” role and because their needs are not being met.

An alpha child can also be well mannered but caretaking others and controlling the home environment in the absence of a caretaker. This may be because the present parent is frightening or dysfunctional—for example, a child whose mother is absent who takes on the mothering role, which includes making sure everyone doesn’t “trigger” the scary/angry dysfunctional parent. This is a lot of work for a child, added to which the child’s needs are not being met.

How Do we Become Alpha Children?

If a child is in a family in which the parenting role is weak or absent, s/he or one of the siblings will step in to fill the parenting breach. This is a natural and normal phenomenon in families because someone has to do the parenting. If the designated adults are not fulfilling that role, a child will do his or her best to fill it. Normally, one child will step into this role. A child stepping into that role is doing so from an immature base and a lack of the necessary resources to fulfill the role. The child will, however, take it on and tenaciously hang on to it until a capable adult is able to successfully wrangle it back. This transition can be turbulent, but is well worth the effort.

Alpha children’s needs are not being met, and they can often be quite obnoxious and difficult to be around. They are overwhelmed, unhappy, often insecurely attached, and can be exhausted from doing a job that is way too big for their capabilities. They will tenaciously hold on to being in charge even though they ultimately don’t want to be in this position in the family. The child is not enjoying being in charge, no matter how it looks from the outside; s/he is only holding that position because no one else is fulfilling the parenting role adequately. This can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, alarm, insecurity and other issues for the alpha child.

If you were an Alpha Child

You may find yourself taking on too much, automatically being the one to sort everything out, being over-responsible and often not getting any of your own needs met. It can really help to get support to shift out of imprints that are no longer serving you in the present. For example, if you were raised to caretake everyone else and not have any needs yourself, this is something that you can change as an adult so that you can have healthier relationships and feel more fulfilled.

Your inner alpha child may need time to catch up with the normal childhood fun and play that was missed, and she may need to share her feelings about what it was like to be working so hard back then to be the parent at such a young age. There could be some grieving that needs to happen for what was lost and not given or received as a child.

Parenting if you were an Alpha Child

Struggling parents are often parenting from a young child part of themselves. If you are parenting from your alpha child self you may be feeling overwhelmed and low-resourced as a parent, and may even feel like you are in competition with your child, or that your child is behaving badly on purpose to trigger you. This is because your child self has a limited understanding of what is really going on, and because your parenting role models were poor. We internalize the parenting that we receive and that which we don’t receive. This means that if we lacked parenting or it was weak, parenting our own children can be challenging. We don’t have the internal experience of good enough parenting to draw on as a parent. It can really help to get some support to build some new parenting resources internally, and strengthen your adult self so that your inner child/ren don’t have to step up to do the parenting. This does not go well.

When you are more able to relate, parent and perceive from your adult self, you can develop more of the necessary adult parenting resources. These can keep you out of negative looping dynamics and blaming your child or others for the problems. I often hear parents say about their child, “He is winding me up on purpose; he knows just how to trigger me.” It may feel this way, but this is a skewed perception. It’s your job as a parent to be responsible for your own triggers; they are nothing to do with your child. New awareness and resources can be built around your triggers so that you can choose to be in your adult self where you are able to parent from maturity instead of getting into arguing, yelling and “losing it” as a parent. As adults, we can be responsible for our triggers and have the internal resources to manage ourselves in the moment, and to get support if necessary.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld on Alpha Children

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Developmental Attachment teacher in Canada, was the first person to teach me about alpha children. Children become alpha when their parents are:

  1. Weak or inadequate in their parenting, and have no confidence in themselves.
  2. Are looking to their children to fulfill their own (attachment) needs. For example, if a parent tells their child, “I am lonely,” or “I need another hug,” or the parent asks their child, “Why are you treating me this way?” Statements such as these put the children into the role of caretakers and make them feel that they have to be a certain way for their parents. Isolated, marooned or single parents can be prone to this way of relating. It can help if parents grieve their own unmet needs so they don’t look for them to be met by their child.
  3. Parenting on demand – Many parents are tired, exhausted and busy, so they only attend to the squeaky wheel. The children have to ask for everything, which puts them in charge, and they become demanding. The more suffocated the parent feels by this, the more demanding and loud the child becomes. The parent needs to assume responsibility by being proactive and get there first to meet the needs of their child, before their child has to ask. You can’t be passive as a parent.
  4. Egalitarian parenting – Treating children as equals, involving them in all decisions, family councils. There is no equality in attachment – equality is the fruit of having had your attachment needs met by an alpha parent.
  5. Child-led or child-centered parenting – it’s good to read a child’s needs and take initiative to meet them, but child-led parenting is asking them what they need and children don’t know this. What children need is contact, closeness, love and belonging. We are the answer to their needs; their true needs must be ascertained by us. So many parents ask their children constant questions about what they need; in this case, there is no alpha adult present.
  6. Failing to invite dependence – In North America, we put too strong an emphasis on independence in our children. We are failing to be generous and provide our children with more than they need and more than is pursued by them. Parents and teachers are afraid of kids’ dependence. If they are never fully dependent they will never grow out of it. The more that you provide dependence the more they will be moved to become viable as a separate being.
  7. Failing to act as a benevolent agent of futility – As an alpha parent you decide what a child will have, or not have, what life is like and what this child needs to adapt to. When we have decided this, we then know where to say no. Our no creates futility in the child, and brings their tears. This is good for children because they need to learn futility and have their tears about it; this builds brain plasticity.
  8. Becoming dependent on experts – This puts parents in the dependent position, not the alpha position. It’s good to get support and find the answer in yourself.
  9. Reversing dependency – Many of us have become dependent on our children regarding technology! We have to be aware that we don’t lose our alpha position in this dynamic.

How Parents can help their Alpha Child 

It is ideal to get help from someone who knows how to support the family to make the changes required. Once support is in place, the parents need to make a decision to get back in charge and step into their authority. This means a commitment to solid co-parenting – being on the same page and consistent with your chosen discipline, structure, consequences, boundaries and follow-through.

Taking back the authority from the alpha child can be a challenging transition to make and is worth the effort a hundred fold. After a transitional period of changing your parenting, getting in charge and showing your alpha child that you mean it and that this is for real, your child will begin to trust you and will feel able to let go of being in charge. Children need to know you have their back, and that you really mean it – 24/7. Only then will they be able to trust you enough to let go of control. During the transition to getting back in charge, your boundaries and resolve will be tested so that your child can really know that you are solid and dependable. Once you reach the other side of this transition and are back in charge as a parent you will find yourself in a completely different family, with a totally changed child! Children will often settle down, feel and be calmer, happier, more amenable, affectionate, and want to please you. A securely attached child naturally wants to please her parents.

Parents with an alpha child usually need to work on

  • Consistent co-parenting
  • Stepping up into their authority
  • Strengthening boundary making and following through with boundaries once made
  • Dealing with their own issues and triggers so they can be less reactive in their parenting, and practice better self-care
  • Learning how to listen underneath their child’s behavior to parent their child’s real needs, and focus less on parenting their child’s wants

It is important for parents to be consistent in their co-parenting, whether living together or not. Once stability is established, attachment will often become more secure and everything in the home will settle and become much calmer. Behavior outside the home can also improve.

Children are Working Hard to Communicate with us through their Behavior

It’s important when we see or perceive children as “behaving badly” that we listen underneath their behavior, because that’s where the real information lies. Children reflect the family system in which they are developing. A child’s behavior is his amazing persistent attempt to tell us what he is feeling, what’s wrong and what he needs. Children want us to know what’s going on inside and to help them with it, without them having to ask for their needs to be met. Their “behavior” is also giving us great information about their family system if we know how to listen.

Children often tell us how they feel by giving us the experience of what they are feeling: they convey this to us through their behavior so that we get a felt-sense of what they need us to know. Our job is to get what is being communicated and to decide in an adult manner how we want to respond in their best interests. To do this, we must parent from our adult selves because from there we can understand that they are a product of the family system, as well as having their own experiences and imprints that may need to be heard and supported. Children need parents to be consistently in charge and meeting their needs without being asked.

This creates secure attachment, and so as parents we need to know how to listen to what the real needs are and meet them proactively to prevent alpha dynamics.

Karen Melton © All rights reserved – Published March 2019.

Karen Melton

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