A new theory on how bullies are made

By Janice Biehn on July 23, 2012
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – a clinical and developmental psychologist in Vancouver – is an expert in attachment theory and has spent years working in correction facilities and youth detention centres. He shared his new theory on how bullies are made at a recent conference, Taking an Educated Approach to Learning, hosted by KMT (The Learning Group) in Toronto. His “alpha askew” thesis stunned the capacity crowd of parents, childcare workers and educators.

Dr. Neufeld’s theory rests on an understanding of the two attachment instincts: alpha (the instinct to lead and provide) and dependent (the instinct to follow and seek). As we grow and develop, these alpha and dependent instincts are meant to be fluid and responsive to the situation, but often we get stuck in certain phases and our personalities become defined by them. In families, the natural instinct is for the parent to be the alpha and the child to be the dependent. In marriages, good marriages that is, both partners share the alpha and dependent roles depending on the situation.

We all know people who are too bossy (alpha complex) or too needy (dependent complex). Dr. Neufeld is quick to point out that both personality types have their place, and confessed to having an alpha complex himself.

But key to the alpha instinct – rather than just leading and bossing – is the instinct to care and provide for those who are dependent on them. How does that instinct work? We must be able to see that others are vulnerable and need help. On a very basic level, when you see a little child reaching for something, you lend a hand. On an instinctive level, when you hold your little baby for the first time, you are overwhelmed by the need to care and protect that fragile life.

So when does the inner bully take over? Dr. Neufeld explains that when people with alpha complexes become defended against their own vulnerable feelings, the alpha instincts become perverted. “Humans are easily wounded. If one’s vulnerability is too much to bear, defensive filters are activated which numb out the more vulnerable feelings and their corresponding impulses.”

Enter the Alpha Askew: “when the alpha attachment instincts to dominate are no longer tempered by caring and responsibility, the bully instinct is born.”

The bully asserts his or her dominance through fear and intimidation, put-downs, shaming and humiliation, through exposing and embarrassing and through tricking and conning. Why? Because the instinct to care for the vulnerable has been subverted by the instinct to prey on the vulnerable. “That’s why you should never tell a bully that they hurt your feelings,” says Dr. Neufeld. “That only informs their actions that they have found a weak spot.”

How are these alpha complex individuals so easily wounded? Were they abused by their parents? Bullied themselves? Not necessarily, says Dr. Neufeld. Alphas can also become “askew” because of a lack of fulfilling attachment to an adult, or a lack of an adult in a providing alpha role. In other words, they never felt safe being in a dependent state.

Is there any hope for bullies? Absolutely, says Dr. Neufeld. With right relationships, their hearts can soften and bullies can “find their tears” again.

Bullying in the news

Sirdeaner Walker

When Sirdeaner Walker’s 11-year-old son Carl committed suicide due to bullying in 2009, she became a staunch anti-bullying advocate, testifying before U.S. Congress to promote the Safe Schools Improvement Act. In September 2011, Sirdeaner and her family were featured on ABC’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition and the program helped organize her website, standtogether.tv. Almost 200,000 people have registered on the site to “take the pledge” against bullying.


Being marketed as “the most important film of 2012,” Lee Hirsh’s Bully documents the lives of five kids who’ve been affected by bullying. It also captures the response of teachers and administrators, and shows the growing movement of parents and youth looking to change how bullying is handled. Hirsh was disappointed it garnered an R rating in the U.S. due to swearing, making it inaccessible for the young people who needed to see it. The Canadian decision to give it a PG rating eventually pushed U.S. distributors to release it without a rating.

Mitchell Wilson

In 2010, Mitchell Wilson, an 11-yearold boy with muscular dystrophy from Whitby, Ont., was attacked and robbed by two youths. The event caused Mitchell to suffer anxiety attacks and his health worsened. Shortly after, he was subpoenaed to testify about the assault, and on the first day of Grade 6, Mitchell took his own life. His father has since become an anti-bullying advocate and students in the area have rallied behind the cause creating plays and holding awareness assemblies.

Mitt Romney’s high school revelations

Concern arose this past spring when a Washington Post article outed U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a high school bully. The article detailed an incident where Romney became incensed by a classmate’s hairstyle, and chased him down to cut his hair while a group of other students held him down. Romney has since apologized for his actions. - Kelsey Rolfe

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

By Janice Biehn| July 23, 2012

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