Anatomy of Alpha Children (FA Retro)

Hold On To Your Kids
Hold On To Your Kids

Doctors Brian and Giuseppe speak with Dr. Gordon Neufeld about chronically inflexible, bossy, defiant kids and those who need to be the boss. Topics include:

  • What are alpha children and how do they develop?
  • What kinds of problems arise for alpha children?
  • Why are some alpha children at risk of becoming bullies?
  • What can parents do to increase their kids' willingness to be directed?

You can find out more information about Dr. Neufeld and his approach at the Neufeld Institute. A transcription of this episode is provided below.

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Here's a transcript of our interview:

Dr. MacDonald: Your kids probably have a classmate who needs to be the boss when they play together, or perhaps your child is the one who prefers to be in control. The number of inflexible kids seems to be on the rise, leading to problem behavior such as bullying and defiance. Find out how to improve the behavior of alpha children in our interview with Dr. Gordon Neufeld this week on Family Anatomy.

Child 1: The hosts of Family Anatomy are psychologists, but they're not your psychologists.

Child 2: So if you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. This show is for information only.

Dr. Spezzano: Welcome to Family Anatomy, your source for parenting and relationship information with your host, Dr. Giuseppe Spezzano.

Dr. MacDonald: And Dr. Brian MacDonald. You can find us at or over on iTunes, and let's get right into the discussion today. We're talking about alpha children.

Dr. Spezzano: We're talking about alpha children.

Dr. MacDonald: Not beta children or VHS children.

Dr. Spezzano: Not beta, no. They're fully formed. They're not in testing mode.

Dr. MacDonald: No, they are not. We're going to be talking with Dr. Gordon Neufeld once again today.

Dr. Spezzano: Dr. Gordon Neufeld, he's a developmental psychologist. We've talked to him before. He was in private practice. We just found out that he's so busy with international engagements, speaking tour, workshops, that he's not doing private practice directly anymore, but he still has his institute open in Vancouver, British Columbia.

He's internationally recognized for his work with children and families, and he's got a very long resume here. The book that we talked about last time with him, Hold Onto Your Kids, is still a very relevant book, and I think he might be working on another book.

Dr. MacDonald: Hopefully he is working on another book. Certainly he's recorded some videos and you can find those on his website, and today we're going to be talking about those alpha children, which are kids who kind of get stuck in this role or this need, primarily the problems that we're going to talk about are the kids who need to be the boss, the kids who can't take direction, the kids who kind of rule the roost so to speak in their home.

Dr. Spezzano: Really in any relationship. It's this alpha instinct and this dependency. They go on a dance to be in a marriage relationship even friendships with adults, there's a tendency to want to take charge, and at times when someone's feeling more vulnerable, they want to be cared for. Hopefully when this is a fluid thing in a healthy relationship, they go back and forth, because everybody's got times when they're more vulnerable and feeling more confident.

Dr. MacDonald: Right. Sometimes you need help. Sometimes you need to take charge of the situation and hopefully it's not one person who's in one of those roles all the time.

Dr. Spezzano: That's right and that's what happens sometimes with kids, I guess, and that's not what you want, but let's not do all the work for Dr. Neufeld. Why don't we get him on the line?

Dr. MacDonald: We may as well get him to do some work. Let's get him on the phone.

Dr. Spezzano: Dr. Neufeld, welcome to Family Anatomy.

Dr. Neufeld: My pleasure.

Dr. Spezzano: We're very happy to have you again on the show. We’ve been looking forward to talking to you again. The last time we talked, we talked more about secure and insecure attachment and the closeness and distance that parents have with their kids. Tonight on the show, what we’re going to do is talk about another dimension that you focused on, and that is alpha versus dependent aspects of relationships. Tell us about this and why it’s important.

Dr. Neufeld: This is a huge dynamic that we seem to be blind to as human beings.  We have such a strong value I think of equality that we simply don’t see this dynamic in relationships.  It’s obvious when we look at other animals. In terms of humans, this drive to dominate, this need to dominate has been misperceived. Nietzsche and from there Adler have perceived it as an inherent quest for power that needed to be tamed. This has greatly influenced how people think. Others see it as an entitlement or as something that needs to be confronted and so on. There are various ideas about this.

Of course the most perverse manifestation of this drive to dominate is bullying, from which we can see, we have quite an aversion to this.  In actual fact, when we look at it through the lens of attachment, we see that it’s absolutely inherent.  It is natural.  It is part of the family of attachment instincts.  It exists in every single mammal.  Because attachment is primarily there to create a context in which we can take care of our offspring, attachment is primarily hierarchically arranged.  There is no such thing as equality in attachment.  It is actually hierarchically arranged.  The only instincts when we come close to each other, the instincts are either to take care of.  That is the healthy instincts and attachment, are to dominate to be the answer of the other or to move to depend upon the other.  Even in adult relationships, as we become attached, we move naturally and hopefully in a very fluid dance that when we perceive the need of the other, we take the position of moving to become their answer in the areas of belonging and love and affection and all of those things and vice versa.  This alpha dependent dance is very important.

In fact, when you really understand this as I’ve come to understand this, it’s made more sense of the marriage conflicts we have than any other dynamic.  We trip all over each other when we’re both alpha.  Then we’re always trying to trump each other.  It’s like 2 people trying to drive at the same time, or like in any kind of dance, one person has to have the lead.  Of course if you’re both trying to follow, it’s equally frustrating.  This is the basic inherent attachment dance.  Attachment is not about equality.  It’s about hierarchy and this is politically incorrect.  We have a hard time really seeing this and talking about it.

Dr. Spezzano: You mentioned bullying as one aspect or one element of alpha kinds of behavior, but it’s not always a negative situation, right?

Dr. Neufeld: No.  The alpha is positive without it.  We wouldn’t move to take care of the needy, to take care of the vulnerable.  In the wild, the alpha instincts, you can see their intended purpose is to protect and to defend and to provide. This is a very strong attachment needed.  It’s very positive.  The problem comes when our emotional brain, the limbic system cannot move us at the very same time to care or to assume responsibility.  These are 2 very important emotions.  There’s 3 instincts or emotions that must come simultaneously to take charge, to care, and to assume responsibility.  The problem with caring and responsibility is they’re very vulnerable emotions.  We can easily become defended to those.  Even mice can.  Even other mammals can.

Bullying exists in all these creatures.  If we become defended against us, then the alpha instincts get divorced from what they were intended, their intended purpose and the instincts become perverted.  This is what ultimately happens in bullying.  You have this drive to dominate that is strong, but to the other characteristic of every bully I have met in my life and I used to work with prisons of them is that they’re defended against the feelings of caring and responsibility.  The motive operandi then is to a certain dominance through exploiting vulnerability rather than what you would see, and you should see it, as helping.  There are all kinds of manifestations of the alpha.  You and I probably share one, which is the rescuer helper syndrome.

This is when you’re over responsible and you assume to take care of everyone.  It’s well known among therapists, well known among others, and this is when you’re moved to the over responsible.  If you hold others responsible, which is a very interesting thing, you hold others responsible, then the alpha manifestation takes a demanding turn.  We are having an escalating problem with demanding children who are alpha children who try to orchestrate the care of the adults around them.  You also have a very competitive manifestation.

This is when the alpha instincts come when you’re with your so called equals because it’s not a position of hierarchy.  Then you seek to displace the other which is a very primitive instinct of alpha is this displacement.  That’s the basis of all competition is you’re displacing the other, moving to the top and so on.  That’s a very strong instinct and for some people, much more so than others.

Dr. MacDonald: The initial instinct is a healthy one.  It’s an instinct to take charge and to take care of but I guess at some point, if that becomes a character trait as opposed to a way that you can be fluid in any particular situation, if you are a parent or even in a marriage and you see that the person that you’re with is hurt, that’s where that alpha instinct can come in handy.  If the motive behind it is not to care for the other but just to further your own goals or your own self promotion, I guess that’s one of the problems.

Dr. Neufeld: That’s right.  The alpha instincts are meant to be highly fluid.  If you put a baby in the arms of a 2-year-old and you do some match making; he’s so lucky to have a big brother like you, look at him smile at you, he just loves you, and he watched that 2-year-old find every little alpha instinct in him.  You can just feel the alpha instincts come to the floor as he moves to take care of and to assume responsibility for the baby.  The caring isn’t informed.  That’s another issue but the instincts are to care.  These instincts are in every single person.  Research shows this that even in the sexual domain, the dominance and dependence instincts are all there as part of the family.  It’s culture and context that determines which will be expressed.

Dr. Spezzano: The more common, maybe to mention might be familiar with is that dominance and submission, but you’re calling it a little bit different from that.  Is there a difference?

Dr. Neufeld: I think there is.  I think basically because if the mission doesn’t get the whole purpose of attachment and the purpose of attachment is for one to take care of the other.  I talk about alpha because that moves to the top but an actual fact, the opposite of alpha is not submission.  It is to depend upon.  The real purpose is to provide and to seek.  The provider is the answer to the seeker, the seeking.  You’re seeking for the answers in terms of attachment, belonging, and affection.  Submission I think is a very harmful construct in that you’re giving up something, whereas when you depend is a very positive thing.  There’s dignity in it to lean upon, to trust in, to see another as the answer.  The Japanese culture doesn’t use the term submission.  They use the term dependence and they find great dignity in this.  We have great problems with this is our North American culture.

Dr. Spezzano: Sometimes like you said, the idea is that in couples, people will move in and out of these two roles in that attachment dance where sometimes one person will be dependent upon the other and the other will need to take charge and sometimes the roles might be reversed.  You’ve written about an alpha complex which is a little bit different.  How does that develop and what is the alpha complex all about?

Dr. Neufeld: An alpha complex is basically when you’re stuck in alpha instincts and it’s not so fluid anymore.  Like Mother Theresa would be stuck.  Hitler would have been stuck.  There’s all kinds of manifestations.  Just a study was done on the U.S. presidents and the drive for dominance, they call it a fearless drive for dominance and what they have in common with psychopaths.  It’s stuck. It can be stuck in a rescuer syndrome.  It can be stuck in a bully syndrome.  It can be stuck in various ways but it’s when it’s no longer fluid.

The difference is alpha instincts, they should depend upon the situation.  When they’re more characteristic of the personality of bossy pants, that person who always have to take charge and over, then it’s more characteristic of the person.  If it’s characteristic of a person, then that person has an alpha complex.

Dr. MacDonald: You know what’s funny is that I just watched the debate last night and a lot of the commentators were talking about the two alpha males on stage, Obama and Mitt Romney.  How does that …

Dr. Neufeld: It was more of a battle, wasn’t it?

Dr. MacDonald: It was.  It was a good debate.  What is it that creates this stuckness in a particular person so that it becomes detrimental to them and the people around them?

Dr. Neufeld: There’s two things.  We could be alpha by default when we didn’t have a proper experience in our childhood of being taken care of.  We didn’t encounter a strong alpha presence.  I think this is happening to more and more children who simply don’t encounter that.  I had this experience when I was young.  I was the oldest child and my mother was very sick when I was five years of age.  My father was absent.  It put me into an incredible alpha role.  It became in a sense my survival.  I’m quite stuck. I get exhausted sometimes in my alpha role.  When I do a week intensive, my alpha instincts are so exhausted.

After that, I don’t even want to drive.  I want my wife to make the decisions about where we’re going to eat and everything like that.  As soon as my energy comes back, damn I go right back into this alpha thing again.

Dr. Spezzano: What you’re really saying is that in that week, you’re having to take charge of things.  You’re having to give direction all the time, take care of others and teach.

Dr. Neufeld: The alpha instincts get exhausted and that’s the only time for me sometimes I can lay down.  I had this experience which really put me into an alpha position.  The other reason for becoming alpha is very simple.  It’s not safe to depend.  If you were abused, neglected, if the relationship was used against you, if there was a lot of alarm in your childhood, if it’s not safe to depend then it’s easy to get stuck in that alpha mode.  There’s different reasons for the alpha complex, but at the end, if you have an alpha complex and you become defended against caring and defended against responsibility, this is where the bully is formed.  That’s where it turns dark and the alpha becomes very perverted.

Dr. Spezzano: This idea that we have in our culture that we want our kids to be independent, sometimes that independence happens by necessity and not out of a sense of secure attachment.  It’s almost a negative type of independence.

Dr. Neufeld: It is completely and it’s one of the things we’re doing very wrong.  Independence cannot be pushed.  The research shows that parents, divides parents basically of toddlers into two types of parents.  One who says to their toddler, you can walk very well on your own two feet; don’t expect me to do anything for you that you could or should do for yourself.  The other kind of parent says come here, I miss picking you up; here, I’ll carry you.  Ironically and paradoxically, the parents who are generous about inviting their children to depend have children who are invested and preoccupied with being independent.  The parents who are pushing the independence of their children have children who are stuck at wanting to be carried to depend.

It’s very paradoxical and unfortunately, we have been thinking that we have to push independence instead of realizing that no, nature has a plan.  When we invite our children to depend upon us, when they have a sense of being taken care of, when they feel generously provided for, automatically their limbic system goes into the next gear.  Nature says okay, now we’re ready for doing it myself or becoming their own person and so on.  That’s nature’s job to push independence.  Our job is to take care of them.

Dr. Spezzano: We’ve talked so much on Family Anatomy and talked with you as well about attachment and I think sometimes there is a risk for parents who are so concerned about their relationship with their children that they might even be afraid to set limits.  They might be afraid to disagree or to take that alpha role because of the impact it might have on the relationship. What does an effective alpha parent look like?

Dr. Neufeld: That’s the thing is yes, so many parents have lost their confidence.  They’re afraid of us that … A good health presentation is you don’t express your own needs.  Just like as a therapist, it’s not time for you to express your own needs because that would bring the client to take care of you and that would up end the whole relationship.  Many parents express their own needs to their children and express their own emotions to their children; you’re making me sad, I’m lonely now, or you’re upsetting me, which just invites the child to take care of the parent.  The alpha presence is in the eyes.  It’s in the manner.  It’s in the demeanor.  There’s a take charge attitude which really gives the child a sense that everything is safe, everything is okay.

They are the ones that are being taken care of.  I found when I was in Provence on sabbatical there and in Belie when I had a brief sabbatical there, that the alpha presence in parents and in grandparents and teachers, it was a very strong scripted in culture.  They want as if they were the children’s answer.  They talked as if they were their children’s answer.  Children moved naturally in the dependent position looking up to them.  Then you come to North America and we have a whole host of adults who look so confused who are following their children, who are running to gurus to tell them what to do.  Of course when you’re in that, you’re in the dependent position.  I even have parents who would buy my book and say I could hardly wait to read this with my child.

I would say oh my goodness, don’t you ever let your child know that you bought a book on parenting.  That’s the worst thing they could do. When it comes to your child, you’ve got to bluff it.  They’ve got to know that you are their answer.  Keep that the secret.  We’ve lost somehow these very important alpha instincts with our children.  Our children are becoming anxious.  They’re becoming alpha as a result, highly alarmed because they do not feel our strength.  They do not feel our confidence in being able to take care of them.

Dr. Spezzano: They take on the alpha role and parents might be seeing, parents might be listening to this now and thinking my son seems bossy and my child is pretty inflexible and I’ve heard about some bullying at school.  If a child is stuck in that alpha position, what can parents do to move them out of that?

Dr. Neufeld: The most important thing is to take a rightful position in their life.  You need to establish a caring dominance with them and that’s not an issue of loading it over.  It’s an issue of making it easy for them to depend upon us.  That is the part that we’re having difficulty with.  For over 50 years now, the key word in parenting has been yes it’s okay for them to depend as an infant but by two years of age, don’t do anything for them that they could or should do for themselves.  It’s been a drastic message and totally taken us away from traditional wisdom and culture.  It is finding our rightful place, our caring dominance.  For instance, in no traditional culture does the child feed themselves.  The parent makes up their mind of what the child is going to eat and if you have a Ukrainian mother, still the Ukrainian mother isn’t going to ask you what it is that you would like to eat, not even as an adult.  You eat what she provides.  That’s the way you love her and she loves you by providing.  In traditional cultures are like this.

We’ve put children in the lead.  We have lost our confidence and in this, our children are becoming bossy, prescriptive, controlling, and then we misinterpret it as being strong rather than being as a desperate offense.  In an actual fact, the right relationship for children is to depend upon the adults who are responsible for them.  It’s the only way we can truly take care of them.  It’s the only way we can make them feel safe.

Dr. MacDonald: You said several times that it’s important for you as a parent not to look for the answer but to be the answer.  If that’s the case, what is the question that the children, or questions that the children are presenting to parents?

Dr. Neufeld: Their bottom question of all of us is are we invited to exist in your presence.  It’s an attachment question.  We look for contact and closeness.  This goes back to the attachment of hunger, for love and belonging for a sense of saneness.  What we’re looking for this connection in so many ways and that is our basic hunger.  Just as our relationships should be to their food and to their safety that we are their defender.  We are their provider.  The same thing should be true in terms of their attachment and hunger.  As parents, we’ve come to think that we have to learn how to parent. We have to find out what the answers are.

In actual fact, we’ve neglected the most important place of all of just rising up to be the answer of our children.  That’s where the alpha instincts are found is in that aspiration, that mission, that confidence to become the answer my child needs.

Dr. MacDonald: It’s all about making sure that the children know that they’re a priority for you but also that you are the one who’s in authority over them.

Dr. Neufeld: Absolutely.  You’re willing to make the decisions, including the tough decisions, that they may be upset about.  You’re not afraid of upset.  The alpha is not afraid of upset.

Dr. Spezzano: You can help them get through that upset but you still are firm in setting those limits.  Do you ask for their input when you’re making those decisions?  Do you know what I mean? Some people might be thinking should we be conversing about what their needs might be before making those decisions?

Dr. Neufeld: Of course, but there’s always a bottom line.  If a child cannot accept a no from you, then the whole point of reasoning is … It’s a mood point because the fact is the child won’t accept a no, so all you’re trying to do is avoid upset.  There’s no point in ever having any kind of negotiation with somebody and taking their needs into consideration unless you’re accepted as an agent of utility.  If you say no I’m not going to read a second story tonight and they are about to accept it, then you’re free to find out what their needs are all kinds of things.  If the bottom line is they can’t accept you as an agent of utility, then that’s what needs to be dealt with.

Dr. Spezzano: What are the consequences if they can’t accept you as an agent or …

Dr. Neufeld: Good question.  There’s going to be upset [crosstalk 00:27:39].

Dr. Spezzano: You give into them.  They start taking charge.  What’s happening there? What’s the consequences of that?

Dr. Neufeld: The whole issue of adaptation, when children need to be changed by that which they cannot change, when they’re up against the things that they cannot change, this is the whole issue of human adaptation, and it requires a lot of courage as an parent to be the representative of that reality of utility.  The first word of course is just something like no, mommy is the boss of that; I can’t let you do this or whatever it is, or I can’t let you have this and so on.  It’s no and then the response of utility that really sinks in, that the only thing left to do is for a child to have their tears. That’s where the body language comes in, the limbic system when utility registers in the limbic system.

If the heart is soft enough, the eyes water.  The tears of utility are there and then of course the next response from the parents should come along as an angel of comfort and so that you can make room for those tears, at the same time be an agent of utility.  We’ve lost that wisdom in our culture along with the alpha instincts.  We take way too many cues from our children in terms of what will upset them and then we find that they can’t adapt to anything.  When they’re up against things that they cannot change, they simply become more fringy in their attempts to alter realities that they have no business altering.  It’s all part again of this alpha thing.

The alpha role in a parent is to be able to have our yays be yays and our nays be nays, is to be able to then collect the tears that need to come with this and forward the adaptation of our children over the little things in life so that they are prepared for the bigger things in life that they will be up against.

Dr. Spezzano: Of course when you have a parent who has difficulty accessing those alpha instincts and then you have a child who may be bossy or inflexible, something else is going to happen we haven’t really talked about very much.  Sooner or later you’re sending that child off to school and a teacher is going to have to deal with the child that feels like he’s the boss.

Dr. Neufeld: That’s exactly it.  Once the tears are lost, of course if you do stand up, if you do say no, then you get eruptions that follow frustration of aggression and so on. Then the real issue is it goes much more deeply into addressing the alpha issues in that child and helping them get their feelings back.

Dr. MacDonald: You know what’s interesting and people listening to you probably think here’s this warm and gentle man who advocates for talking about attachment and caring for children and for other people, and what people might not know but I think you mentioned it a little earlier was that you worked in prisons for a long time.  Almost the opposite of what you might think someone like you would’ve been doing, but that really informed a lot of what you came to develop in your theories.

Dr. Neufeld: Did it ever.  It did and many do think of attachment base parenting as putting the child in the lead and as avoiding upset and taking the cues from the child and that’s not what it is. Attachment is hierarchical and it is the parent taking their rightful position and responsibility because that’s the only way that a child can feel satiated, nurtured, and safe.  There are often misunderstandings when people get into this attachment stuff.  It is yes.  It is nurturing, but to nurture, one person has to be in charge.  Otherwise, nurturance doesn’t take place.

Dr. Spezzano: Part of ensuring that kids don’t become defended against those vulnerable feelings is making sure they know it’s normal to feel sad, to worry about things.  Normalizing those feelings is so important for parents to do.

Dr. Neufeld: Absolutely.  Not to be afraid of them yourself.

Dr. Spezzano: I think parents panic when their kids cry or they become [crosstalk 00:32:02].

Dr. Neufeld: We’re defended against our own peers.  We’re going to shame them in our children.  It’s very important to make room for them in ourselves and in our children.

Dr. MacDonald: Dr. Neufeld, it’s been great talking to you again.  We want to thank you for coming on the show and we want to let people know where they can find out more about your work and your books and where you’re going to be next.

Dr. Neufeld: The best way of finding out more is through the Neufeld Institute website,  I’m just about to leave on a 10 country tour or will be in ten countries, nine other countries then Canada but away for … I think I have 26 events that I’m doing over a period of five weeks.  We’ll be in Mexico and then in Europe and Russia, some political addresses.  Actually I get to address the parliament in the European Union in Brussels on the well-being of children.  Some exciting things that [inaudible 00:33:02] for me.  I’ll be in the Montreal area just this … coming up very quickly here, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th for day seminars on anxiety, alarm, the alpha child. On Tuesday and Wednesday, bullying.

Then I’ll be back in the Ottawa region in the beginning of April of next year.  I think I’m doing a public address on the troubled child. I’m doing a day seminar on play actually, which goes to the very core of the developmental approach, the construct of play and there’s so much exciting stuff coming in from science now.  It’s just I think it’s the hottest topic now is the construct of play.

Dr. MacDonald: Very interesting.  You know Giuseppe and I both are looking forward to seeing you next week.  We’ll be at the second two days of your three days in Montreal.

Dr. Neufeld: Good.

Dr. MacDonald: Hopefully we’ll get a chance to chat in person.

Dr. Neufeld: I’ll look forward to seeing you again.  That will be great.

Dr. Spezzano: Thanks very much for joining us.

Dr. Neufeld: Thank you for having me on your show.

Dr. Spezzano: That’s it for us.  I hope you enjoyed our interview with Dr. Gordon Neufeld. You can visit us at or email us at

Dr. MacDonald: You can find us on Facebook.  You can find us on Twitter.  If you’re using an iPhone or iPod, you can find us on the podcast app, and as usual we’ll leave you with a bit of a tune by Brother Love and he’s over at  Thanks for listening.  See you in two weeks.

Child 1:

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctors Brian and Giuseppe discussed kids in general in this episode, but every child is unique; your experience may vary from that discussed in this episode.