Bullying is animal instinct, and even in the wild, parents play an important role.
In his book Hold On To Your Kids, Vancouver clinical and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld pulls examples from the animal kingdom to support his theory that parental attachment is at the heart of what turns children into bullies. He believes that youth need a healthy attachment with an adult who is both dominant and nurturing, otherwise they will seek to dominate their peers. This means parents who form unhealthy attachments with their children – if they either try too much to be their child’s friend, or dominate without showing they care – are setting their children up to pick on their peers.
Monkeys raised by their peers turn into bullies. Infant rhesus monkeys were separated from their parents in a research laboratory at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The young primates effectively raised each other, something researchers call peer-rearing. The adult-free environment had a long-term developmental impact on the monkeys, who were found to be more aggressive, self-destructive and prone to be bullies. They became much more impulsive during play, the males especially, and the females were much more likely to grow up to become neglectful or abusive mothers.
In what might be described as the pachyderm-version of the Lord of the Flies, a group of fatherless young elephants went on a murderous rampage on a wildlife reserve in South Africa. The elephants had been relocated in the 1980s, after their first home had become too crowded. The herd’s adult males were too large to transport, so the juveniles were on their own. In the 1990s, as the elephants entered puberty, corpses of rare white rhinos began turning up around the reserve. Poachers were the obvious suspects, but the rhino tusks were intact, and the animals had been gored or crushed. It turned out that some of the young male elephants had become like schoolyard bullies, tossing sticks and mounting the rhinos. In the most violent cases, the elephants knocked them over, kneeled on them and crushed them to death. Some large adult males were introduced to the group in 1998. They established a hierarchy, kept the younger males in line, and the rhino killings stopped.