We're addressing the behavior, battling the symptoms, without getting to the root of the problem.

Why do some kids bully?

Most see bullying as a behavioral problem — that the bully is doing it on purpose.  In fact, the whole word connotes instrumentality: to get your own way and so on, you bully people about.  In actual fact, when you take a closer look at it, it really has to do with attachment instincts, attachment instincts gone awry.  Attachment is to facilitate caretaking — to facilitate taking care of the young, the weak, the needy, the vulnerable.

There are two families of instincts.  One of these is to depend, to look up to, to seek answers from.  The other set of instincts, which we really don't have a name for in humans, but in animals we do, is the alpha instincts: to dominate, to take control, to have the last word, to always move into a position of the first, the foremost.  This is to be able to take care of; we can see it clearly from the animal world.

The problem is, when children lose their feelings, when there is a flight from vulnerability (and this is happening with our children), when they are not only moved to become alpha children (those who have to have the last word, to take charge, to be able to trump every situation), but they're also defended against the caring and the sense of responsibility that should result, this leads to an aberrant scene in which the child actually establishes dominance by exploiting the vulnerability of others, which is the essence of the definition of a bully: to prey on the weak, and to take advantage of the vulnerable.  So it's an aberrant attachment phenomenon.  It informs us tremendously that bullying, if you want to put it simply, is an attachment disorder.

Addressing those issues, being able to re-imbed the bully into proper hierarchies — these are the programs that work the best: the ones that bring the elders into the situation so they can attach there (Knitting the Generations is a wonderful program that originated in Toronto), another program bringing the babies in.  What this does is imbed the bully in a natural hierarchy of caring relationships, which is exactly what needs to be.

And also, when they become strongly attached to a caring adult, their heart begins to soften.  With a soft heart, you don't have a bully.  If they get their feelings back, they get their caring back.  This makes a tremendous difference.

The issue of bullying is right relationships and soft hearts.  The problem is that we are going about it all the wrong way.  We're addressing the behavior, battling the symptoms, without getting to the root of the problem.

Can a Bully be Reformed?

Absolutely.  Yes, absolutely, when you understand the core root of it, that it's alpha instincts gone awry — it's perverted alpha instincts.  Alpha instincts are there to take care of, to defend, to protect.  They're wonderful instincts.  But where a child has become defended against their feelings, it becomes perverted, so then they pounce on the vulnerable, they take advantage of the weak.

When the heart softens, even ever so slightly, you give the bully the rightful place for these instincts, and the bully becomes fiercely protective of those they're attached to, very much defending those they're attached to — and this is exactly what was meant for the alpha instincts.  There's still another problem: the alpha child, even with a soft heart, still does not feel taken care of, so you still have to address the issue of imbedding him in a context of caring attachments, where somebody in his life will establish a soft, caring, but firm dominance over that child.

Do Parents Know When their Child is a Bully?

All the evidence is that children were meant to be placed in hierarchical relationships with those who care for them and those who depend upon them.  When that is there, the caring comes out, and the hearts soften.

Most often not.  You have a hard time with those closest to you, sometimes, seeing this.  The bully instincts can come out when apart from the parents and other relationships.

Basically, what you are looking for are these two things:  Do you have an alpha child who always has to be on the top, to have the last word, always has to take charge?  And is there evidence of a flight from their feelings — "I don't care", "It doesn't matter", "Whatever", they're bored, they're not talking about what distresses them, they've stopped talking about their sadness, they're never talking about being alarmed, they never say "I'm nervous", "I'm scared"?

Those are the combinations.  You've got an alpha child who's numbed to his feelings.  You can be sure that he will be taking advantage of a younger sibling; he will be exploiting the weak and the vulnerable.  These are the issues that need to be addressed.

What should Schools do about Bullying?

Well, basically, the answer would not be focusing on children getting along with children — being nice to each other, not hurting each other's feelings.  We're never going to stamp out the mean streak in human nature.  That mean streak exists in all other mammals as well.  It exists under certain conditions, and the conditions will always exist where some children don't feel safe to depend on the adults responsible for them, and they lose their feelings, they become defended against this.  We see this evidenced even in mice.  So we have bullies in all kinds of examples.  I've talked about this in my book, in the chapter on bullying.

What we need to do is focus on bringing children back into orbit around the adults who care for them.  When the students in a classroom are orbiting around the teacher, when they feel safe with the teacher, then their own relationships with each other take a much better turn, and they are much less likely to move into contrived hierarchy with each other.

Let's say two identical twins are orbiting around the mum and dad, when mum and dad are dominant, they don't orbit around each other; they are in right relationship.  If two identical twins begin to orbit around each other, one will move into the alpha mode, and one will move into the dependent mode: you have a contrived hierarchy.  And they're identical twins.

That's the problem — we have been focusing on children being with their equals, on being together like this at the same age.  There's no scientific evidence for this at all.  All the evidence is that children were meant to be placed in hierarchical relationships with those who care for them and those who depend upon them.  When that is there, the caring comes out, and the hearts soften.  This is where we're meant to be.

So the issue should not be with children to their equals.  The issue should be in being able to recreate a context of connection, where children are attaching to the adults responsible, the teachers, the teacher's aides, and also being able to link them with children in the younger grades, for whom they are responsible.

Creating natural hierarchies is the easiest and simplest solution to this.  It wouldn't even cost any money.  This would be the simplest solution, and it would make the most sense.




Gordon Neufeld. "Bullying." The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (December 13, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada conducts, compiles and presents the latest and most accurate research to ensure that marriage and family-friendly policy are foremost in the minds of Canada's decision makers.


Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience with children and youth and those responsible for them. A foremost authority on child development, Dr. Neufeld is an international speaker, a bestselling author (Hold On To Your Kids) and a leading interpreter of the developmental paradigm. Dr. Neufeld has a widespread reputation for making sense of complex problems and for opening doors for change. While formerly involved in university teaching and private practice, he now devotes his time to teaching and training others, including educators and helping professionals. His Neufeld Institute is now a world-wide charitable organization devoted to applying developmental science to the task of raising children. Dr. Neufeld appears regularly on radio and television. He is a father of five and a grandfather to five.

Copyright © 2013 The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

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