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A new theory on how bullies are made

Kid holding up fists - a new theory on how bullies are madeDr. 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

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, 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.

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