Why do some kids try to become the so-called “alpha dogs” of their families? The answer lies in an old saying: nature abhors a vacuum. And in my experience, if there’s a power vacuum in a family, somebody’s going to try to fill it. And too often, it’s a bossy or domineering child.
“If your child does something inappropriate and you don’t give them any consequences, you’re going to look powerless.”
Understand that some mature, older kids do gain some authority in their families, which is natural. In fact, it works well when the child is responsible and mature. Often, the oldest child in a family will take on a leadership role among his siblings. And when that child has a pretty good balance of behavior, they will try to follow through on house rules. Their behavior usually doesn’t pose a problem.
But if a child doesn’t have that balance or maturity, or if the parents aren’t clearly in control of the family structure, it’s another story altogether. Some kids will start to compete with their parents for power from an early age. Instead of following through on the adults’ wishes, they’ll be more interested in controlling their siblings and calling all the shots in the house. In other words, they will start filling that vacuum.
Sometimes the vacuum in parental authority exists because of work and school schedules. In families today, where both parents often work, there are frequently times when kids are left under the care of older siblings. A void is created by the absent parents that a certain kind of child will fill.
And if the child has his own negative intentions, they’ll have plenty of time without adult supervision to intimidate and manipulate the other kids in the family. They will use this time to go against his parents’ wishes and play the big shot. They might give his younger siblings ice cream after school, for example, even though it’s against the rules. Or they may intimidate them when it’s their turn to go on the computer, so they can stay on as long as they want.
And when you get home, if his younger siblings tattle on this child, he or she will retaliate the next day. As a result, there is no safety for these other children in your family, and it becomes very easy for your dominant child to control the family from here on out.
Parents are often initially afraid to stand up to a child who’s bossing everyone around. Why? Perhaps because there’s been a parenting void all the while. Or maybe because they depend on this child to supervise the other kids when they’re gone, and they don’t want to jeopardize that arrangement.
But if they avoid talking to their dominant child about this, they will soon see a shift in the balance of power. At some point, their younger kids will surmise that the adults cannot protect them from their dominant sibling. Once the younger kids believe they aren’t safe, then they have to make their own separate deals with that sibling. And that deal usually involves giving in and following their lead.
When this happens, you’ll see all kinds of inappropriate behavior begin to blossom and thrive. Sometimes these alpha dog kids are funny, so they become clowns and make unkind jokes at their parents’ expense.
By the way, I’m not talking about a child who makes a harmless joke. Rather, I’m talking about one who will put their parents down and make demeaning comments about them. The siblings laugh at those jokes because they’re more afraid of their sibling’s power than they are of their parents’ authority. And why shouldn’t they be? When this dynamic controls a family, the dominant child is much more powerful and has a greater impact on their lives than the parents do.
As things build to a head, the parents feel less and less in control and more and more perplexed and overwhelmed by what’s happening. Often, they are not sure what to do. A family in this situation has reached a point where they’re no longer functioning in a healthy way.
When I’ve had the parents of a bossy or domineering child in my office, I would say:
“Maybe you can help what’s happening right now, and maybe you can’t, but let’s get one thing clear: your child’s goal is to have power and control. Because of their personality makeup, they want power and control for the wrong reasons. They want it to undermine you, to intimidate their siblings, and to be disrespectful toward you. Your child sees an opportunity for power, and takes it to make themselves feel stronger and better about themselves.”
I would then sit down with these parents to develop a plan to reassert their parental authority. That is, to take the power out of the bossy child’s hands and put it back into the parents’ hands—where it belongs in any healthy family structure.
You have to set limits on any child who is trying to run the family. And you have to hold your child accountable. Too many parents are afraid that if they say, “Go to your room,” their dominant child will say, “Screw you!” So those parents might think they’ll look powerless in front of their other kids when this child refuses to comply.
But here’s the rub: if your other kids see you direct your child to their room and they refuse, they know that their sibling has the problem. Conversely, if your child does something inappropriate and you don’t give any consequences, you’re going to look powerless.
In other words, if you tell your child to go to their room and they say, “No, I’m not going—and you can’t make me,” you actually look more powerful to your other kids than if you did nothing. Your acting-out child looks primitive and wrong when they defy you. The other kids know where he or she is supposed to go—even if they refuse. And the other kids still see you as the parent.
If you try to avoid a scene because you’re afraid you’re going to lose face, what tends to happen is that your child will slowly gain more and more power, and that confuses your younger kids. I’ve found that the gut reactions of many parents in this situation are often wrong. They might think, “We’ll let it slide this time. We’ll just negotiate something later.” But there is nothing to negotiate because all this child wants is to maintain power and control. And unfortunately, by letting it slide, and then negotiating, the parents are handing it to them on a silver platter.
Make no mistake—if your child is using raw power to solve relational, social, or functional problems, they will never be able to get enough. This is because they’re being driven by insecurities and an inability to solve basic life problems in an acceptable and mature manner. And as life gets more demanding, they challenge you more and more because they have no other way to get what they want.
If you want to regain control of all your children, you first have to control your domineering child. Even though your other kids may be acting out, it’s typically the domineering child causing the imbalance in authority. Consequently, they’re the ones you have to manage.
Of course, you have to hold your other kids accountable for their actions too, but your priority right now is to address your dominant child’s behavior. That means that you have to give consequences that they can’t undermine. And then you need to be firm and follow through on the consequences.
I also want to make a very important point here: when your younger kids act out, don’t make excuses for their behavior. Don’t let them off the hook by saying, “Oh, they’re under a bad influence.” It’s easy for parents to see the younger kids in the family as victims.
But don’t forget, just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you get to break the law. You have to hold your other kids accountable for their behavior, too. If they protest and say, “But Michael’s doing it,” you can reply:
“We’re dealing with your brother. But know that when you break the rules, there are going to be consequences.”
If your alpha child uses after school time to take over the house, change the routine. That might mean they go to somebody else’s house when school gets out, where an adult will supervise them. Or it might mean that your other kids will go elsewhere.
The point is, if their controlling, bossy behavior occurs around a specific time of day or in certain situations, work to break out of the pattern by changing things up. Limits have to be set, and this is often the best place to start.
If you over-negotiate with a child who’s defiant and trying to be the boss, you’re sending the message that they’re your equal. In my opinion, that’s not the message you want to send. Soon, they’ll start extorting you to behave appropriately: “I won’t act out if you give me what I want!” Believe me, there’s a big difference between motivating kids with a reward system versus bribing them or being extorted by them with the threat of bad behavior.
I think when you’re bargaining with your child, they’re often wearing you down until you give in. You end up saying, “Okay, as long as you behave, you can have your way.” Bargaining with your child isn’t effective because it erodes your legitimate authority in the home. In contrast, when you’re rewarding someone on your terms, it’s clear that you’re the one with the authority.
I don’t believe contracts are magic wands that fix behavior problems. But I do believe that if your child understands the rules, their chances of following those rules increase. In my experience working with kids, I’ve found that if rules are written down on paper, they become more real.
So sit down and draw up a contract with your child that clearly defines what they have to do in certain key areas. It should state that they will be rewarded if and only if they adhere to the contract. Then it should specifically state what the reward will be. Finally, the consequences for disrespect and competing with you as the parent should be clearly stated.
Here’s how that would play out. If your child is disrespectful and told to go to their room, the matter is settled as long as they comply.
Once they get to their room, the protocol might be that they stay there ten minutes, calm down, and talk to you about what they’re going to do differently next time.
But if they refuse anywhere along the line, that’s when the consequences kick in. If they start to act out, you can say:
“This is in our contract, and you agreed to it. Now hand me your phone.”
Remember, as kids get older, they want more sophisticated privileges and rewards. Going to school dances, going to parties, or driving the car are some examples. Use these for leverage.
Expect your child to react strongly to the new structure you impose as soon as you establish it. Adolescents do not give up power easily. Your family may even go through some chaos for a time as your child fights against you. But you have to ask yourself:
“Do I want my child to be my boss? Or should I tolerate some chaos for a while to correct the situation?”
Personally, I think parents have a responsibility to protect all their kids. And they need to protect them from everybody, including themselves and their siblings.
I think it’s good to reward positive behavior in your child whenever you see it. Whenever they behave appropriately, let them know. For example, you say:
“Hey, I noticed you talking nicely to your little brother today. Good job.”
Say it often to reinforce good behavior when it occurs. You can build in some incentives by saying:
“We know you want to feel like an older brother. So if you follow this plan, you can stay up an hour later than the other kids. You can watch TV and have the computer to yourself during that hour, but this is the way you have to act.”
Use the carrot and the stick. And use them consistently so that your child gets regular feedback.
I think it’s important for parents to develop a parenting plan that outlines how they’ll deal with their children. It should be a plan they’re both comfortable with. Parents have to meet and get clear about their message before presenting it to their kids.
So if one parent tends to say things like, “Look, Michael can’t help it, he has ADHD,” but the other parent says, “No, he’s responsible for his behavior just like the other kids are,” they’d better get that settled behind closed doors. Or, at least, they should know where they stand.
Co-parents who can’t get on the same page about holding their kids accountable can easily create a power vacuum that their acting-out child will gladly fill.
If you’re a single parent, I think it’s important for you to keep the expectations for appropriate behavior very clear. In my opinion, all the kids should do more in a single-parent family. They should have more responsibilities, in general. And they should pitch in and help out. These families often have an older child who has more responsibility, and this child should have more rewards for their efforts.
But if you’re a single parent and one of your kids begins getting into power struggles with you, you have to set limits very clearly on their behavior. Talk with this child frankly about it. You can say:
“You’re a big help to me, but you’re not my co-parent. And because you’re a big help, I try to let you do some things on your own. I’m trying to be flexible with you. But remember, I’m the parent—and you’re the child.”
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.