Understanding the Bully Dynamic

Pink Shirt Day, an annual event happening on February 28th this year, inspired this article. Pink Shirt Day “aims to raise awareness of [bullying], as well as raise funds to support programs that foster children’s healthy self-esteem,” and was inspired by an act of kindness in small-town Nova Scotia. “Two boys and their teenage friends organized a high-school protest to wear pink in sympathy with a Grade 9 boy who was being bullied [for wearing a pink shirt]…[They] took a stand against bullying when they protested against the harassment of a new Grade 9 student by distributing pink T-shirts to all the boys in their school. ‘ The Globe and Mail. See www.pinkshirtday.ca for more information.

Bullying wreaks havoc in the social and emotional realm of our schools (and our workplaces, churches, politics, and even our families), yet our attempts to address bullying are not often making the difference we yearn for. The impact of bullying is always serious for those who are bullied, yet parents and teachers often feel at a loss of how to help. It is difficult to address a problem we don’t understand, and the abhorrent behaviour of a bully deftly camouflages what creates and drives the bully dynamic. Some think bullying is a learned behaviour or a moral failure, but these ideas fail to take into consideration bullying’s deep instinctual roots.

Children are meant to be dependent upon the adults responsible for them. This attachment relationship is about closeness and connectedness in every way possible: love and belonging, significance, and emotional and psychological intimacy. Attachment is also meant to facilitate caretaking by those in the provider position. All of us have these instincts to take care of as well as instincts to depend. For various reasons, children can sometimes assume the dominant role, and become bossy and prescriptive, telling their parents what to do and becoming upset when the parents don’t do their bidding. This renders a child unreceptive to being parented and taught.

This in itself, however, does not create a bully. Many children are bossy without being moved to exploit the vulnerability of others. What makes a bully, then? The bully syndrome involves 2 powerful human dynamics gone awry: Bullies have both a relationship problem and a vulnerability problem. They are compelled to dominate—to win, to have the last word, to demand and control, to be superior—and they are also devoid of caring and responsibility, 2 very important and vulnerable feelings. It takes both of these conditions to create the bully’s aberrant behaviour. When the attachment instincts to dominate are no longer tempered by caring (compassion, enthusiasm, concern) and responsibility (guilt, remorse, a desire to make things better, to protect), the bully instinct is born.

A bully asserts their dominance by exploiting the vulnerability of others, using fear and intimidation, put-downs, shaming and humiliation, tricking and conning, exposing and embarrassing. The normal human instinct is to take care of and protect a person who shows any vulnerability, but the bully is instead moved to attack in others what he or she is defended against in themself. Bullying at its roots is not so much a behaviour problem as it is an emotional one. Bullies lose the feelings that would make them human.

Ironically, the bully has experienced wounds too much to bear, causing emotional hardening. They may have faced too much physical or emotional separation from their caregivers, felt too unsafe, or experienced too much shame and humiliation. The brain will not stand idly by in these situations and moves to protect the child by not feeling as much.

The bullying dynamics are so strong that it is difficult to stop the odious behaviour. Bullying is not a learned behaviour, nor is it “on purpose;” this behaviour has deep instinctive and emotional roots. The bully is simply true to their powerful instincts (i.e., they are compelled to dominate), and their brain has moved them to defend against unbearable vulnerability.

Dr. Neufeld, a developmental psychologist who developed this understanding of the bully, says, “No one is truly a bully… The true personality of the bully lies dormant, unexpressed and unrealized, imprisoned within an outer shell of emotional hardness and invulnerability. When the bully loses his toughness, we will also see the sensitivity that was defended against, the out of phase immaturity that has been locked in, and the desperate need to be cared for and for someone to depend upon.”

Most anti-bullying programs don’t work for this reason: We need to look beyond the behaviour and understand the underlying dynamics that make a bully, to understand how to unmake a bully. Zero-tolerance and labelling the behaviour “unacceptable” doesn’t work: a bully is not able to reflect on their behaviour, shows no remorse, and is devoid of the feelings that would make them feel bad for what they’ve done. Consequences will only harden their defenses and lock in the bully problem. For reasons of social justice we often need to apply consequences, but we can’t be fooled into thinking this will help teach the bully a lesson. Empathy training does not work because we can’t teach kids to care; we need to create the conditions where tender emotions can be felt. Standing up to the bully is generally not recommended, and getting children together to work it out is not the answer. We should never advocate for the bullied to tell the bully how they feel because a person with a defended heart will only use that information to wound further. 


The answer lies in bringing bullies back into right relationship, able to lean and depend on those who are responsible for them. We need to find a way to come to the bully’s side, to have a context of relationship to help them. Only when a child is shielded with a safe relationship will the heart soften. The challenge is that the bully’s tough exterior is not endearing and doesn’t draw out our care-taking impulses. Nevertheless, an adult needs to move in with confidence, conveying they can handle them, and become the answer to fulfilling their relationship hunger. This is often difficult with a child in the dominant mode and involves some creativity and perseverance. Once in a relationship, we need to soften their defensive shell by protecting them from further wounding, and lead them into vulnerable territory where they can feel their hurts and wounds, their insecurities and futilities. Once their heart is restored and they can feel their wounds, they will no longer be moved to wound others. Until that time, the adults in charge must compensate for the bully’s immaturity and defenses. We need to protect others from further wounding by implementing good supervision and using structures and rituals to orchestrate their behaviour. The bully must be moved by feelings of responsibility and feelings of caring to become fully humane. 


Gordon Neufeld, Bullies: Their Making and Unmaking (DVD), Neufeld Institute Vancouver BC, Canada. www.neufeldinstitute.org.

Heather Ferguson is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and a Clinical Counsellor at the Matraea Centre in Duncan, BC

About Heather Ferguson

I am a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Parent Consultant with a private practice in Duncan, B.C. I am also on Faculty with the Neufeld Institute. I am inspired by the relationship-based developmental approach that has so deeply enriched my life as a mother to 2 children, ages 14 and 20.