Bullying as Instinct: The Neufeld Paradigm

Posted by: Guest on April 29, 2011 10:25 am

Leading researchers in the field of bullying appear to agree on the definition of bullying as deliberate, repeated aggression in which there is an imbalance of power between the child who bullies and the child who is victimized (Juvonen & Graham, 2001; Olweus, 1991; Pepler & Craig, 2000). But I’m wondering: is it correct, strictly speaking, to think of bullying as the result of a deliberate thought process? Or is it not more accurate to look deeper and think of bullying as having its roots in instinct?

Certainly, there are some compelling reasons for wanting to question the former view. Chief among them is the everyday experience teachers and administrators have when they interview students who have been caught bullying.

Teacher: Did Sandra do something to you to make you mad or sad?

Student: No.

Teacher: So, can you tell me why you decided to trip her all of the sudden
as she walked by?

Student: No…. I dunno…

Teacher: Well, can you tell me what you were thinking just before you
stuck your leg out?

Student: (Silence) I don’t remember…

Teachers like this one who presume bully behaviour to be premeditated in nature are constantly left feeling frustrated by these kinds of responses. They press students for reasons to explain their behaviour, but try as they might, students (particularly younger ones) are often genuinely unable to produce them. Why is that?

The insightful work of developmental psychologist and attachment theorist Gordon Neufeld offers one possible explanation.

According to Dr. Neufeld, humans are born with two important instincts: alpha instincts and dependent instincts. Alpha instincts include the instincts to assume responsibility, to take control, to give direction, to shield, and to have the last word. The evolutionary purpose of alpha instincts is to care for the needy, the weak and the vulnerable. Dependent instincts are the exact opposite: to seek help, to follow, to defer, to look up to, to take direction from, to take one’s bearings from. These two instincts are meant to be complementary. They are also meant to be fluid: those in the alpha position are meant to move naturally to the dependent position if a stronger alpha appears that can take care of them.

The problem occurs when children are wounded emotionally. Such children cannot tolerate the feelings of vulnerability that come together with feelings of caring. The vulnerability is too much to bear, and must be defended against by ‘filtering out’ feelings of caring and responsibility. The result, according to Dr. Neufeld, is that their powerful alpha instincts are now left unchecked and unguided. These instincts are still evoked by displays of weakness and vulnerability in others. However, now they become employed for the opposite purpose of exploiting and dominating rather than taking care of.

This, then, is a brief sketch of Dr. Neufeld’s views on the origins of bullying as an instinct in children. Based on my experience with children both as a teacher and as a counsellor, I believe that his theory offers a more powerful tool for understanding bullying behaviour than the prevailing view. For press them though we may, children –especially young ones – will never be able to tell us why they act in the ways they do.

[1]    ‘Bullying:  Why Worry About it?’  Retrieved Apr.26, 2011 from http://www.prevnet.ca/Bullying/tabid/94/Default.aspx.

[2] Neufeld, G., & Mate, G. (2004). Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers.    Toronto:  Alfred A. Knopf Canada.




*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.