Children, especially ‘immature children’ up to the age of 7, need adults who give them clear, loving guidance.
They need adults who show them how they should behave and how social interaction works by setting an example.
Particularly younger children, i.e. up to the age of 7, do not have the ability to self-regulate yet and rely on their close attachment figures for their emotional security. As a result, these children need adults around them who are relaxed and who stay relaxed – even when children find themselves in stressful situations. These situations can take many forms, including when children get angry, hurt themselves, can’t get their own way, argue, lose their favourite teddy or are faced with a friend’s rejection.
Children also need adults who are curious enough to explore the reasons behind the way a child behaves, without getting distracted by the sometimes very loud and immature behaviour on the surface. They need someone to tune in to them and respond to the needs or messages underlying their behaviour. Children feel emotionally safe and secure when someone recognises and acknowledges the true needs that hide behind their behaviour.
Seeing a child beyond their superficial behaviour may entail saying "no" to what the child actually wants or the child’s way of behaving. However, in order for a child to feel emotionally secure, they still need to hear that we accept both their very being and their feelings, however strong the latter may be.
When we give this to children, we are providing ‘parental leadership’.
Many parents struggle to provide strong, clear leadership because they fear that their child will feel ‘under pressure’ or ‘not acknowledged’. Especially if we have the feeling that we weren’t acknowledged or didn't receive any empathy as a child, we tend towards a parenting style that makes it difficult to respond to our children's basic need for clear, loving leadership.
However, children really need our guidance. They want to know that they can depend on us, and be sure that they will get everything – and learn everything – from us that they need for their development. Besides basic needs and a warm bond, they also need to be guided, introduced to the rules of our culture and clearly shown what they are allowed to do and what not – to name but a few examples.
If we fail to provide guidance, through fear of causing them harm, we put them under a significant amount of stress.
This emotional uncertainty prevents them from simply ‘being’, feeling secure, cared for and dependent and as a result, they have no secure foundation to allow them to curiously explore the world. Instead, they need to start caring for themselves – as an emergency response – as well as take control. These ‘alpha children’, as they are known, begin to take on the role of empathetic caregiver, for example, or assume the role of leader, whereby they dominate the family, other children and often the whole proceedings overbearingly with their childish wants and immature needs. Many of them cannot bear it when they are not the permanent centre of attention. Children who have turned to this ‘alpha mode’ believe that appearing weak, curious, open-minded and vulnerable is too much of an emotional risk. They want to be permanently in control; they tend to be aloof and independent, which, in turn, makes them extremely hard to guide. This is a widespread phenomenon.
Our fear of not wanting to harm children with our leadership is often fuelled by the belief that things should be better for them than they are for us. As a result, we find ourselves in a ‘child-centric’ situation where children are extremely demanding and everyday life exhausting.
Such situations may reveal the true complexity of parental leadership. As part of our work, we describe another key linchpin on the path towards greater connection and warmer relationships between adults and children. We distinguish in this instance between attachment orientation and child centricity. Providing clear, loving parental leadership requires us to examine our own relationship with authority, hierarchy and power.
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