Parenting for boarding school survivors: how counselling can help
Many boarding schools today describe what they offer as ‘a family atmosphere’, yet often children and young people in a boarding environment experience something very different from family life.
In fact, schools usually explain that they are developing children’s capacity to ‘live in a community’ and ‘put the needs of others first’, to become ‘independent’ and ‘responsible’. In an actual family the parents are able to judge how to help their individual child move gradually towards independence and responsibility for their own well-being. In boarding, it’s one-size-fits-all, and the age for becoming independent may be as young as seven.
Though a few schools bravely describe the atmosphere as ‘loving’, love is the big element that can be missing in a communal care setting. One website for a traditional prep school in the UK states that for 110 boarders aged seven to 12 there are five matrons (two of whom are gap year students i.e. in their late teens). This works out as each child sharing a ‘mum-figure’ with 21 others! It is accepted by most people that young children crave and need lots of cuddles and close affectionate touch, so what happens to children who only get this from their teddy bear? They can quickly learn to shut down their needy feelings and push them out of awareness in order to reduce their distress and to prove just how ‘independent’ they are.
When this little child grows up and has their own children, the locked away feelings may start to create difficulties. For example, a child who naturally wants to seek comfort may be seen as ‘weak’ and ‘needy’ by the ex-boarder parent. Or the parent may have learned to cope with their own need for love by constantly reaching out and trying to comfort others (a pattern which may be more common for girl boarders). As an adult, they cannot tolerate any negative feelings at all in others and may be unable to let their child learn from mistakes. They may also have learned well the lesson about putting the needs of others first, but when this means being totally unable to recognise your own needs, then family life can become intolerable.
So how can therapy help ex-boarders to develop healthier ways of responding to their own children? One way is to give the adult a safe and secure relationship in which to explore their locked away vulnerability. This can be quite a challenging process for the client as it requires them to fully trust an adult caring for them, which may be difficult if they lost trust in their own parents’ availability at a young age. A skilled therapist can hold the angry and distressed feelings that come to the surface and gently show the client how to be aware of their own deep needs. The therapist provides an experience of being listened to without judgment, perhaps for the very first time. An adult who has been through this process can then accept and cope appropriately with their own child’s emotions and needs.
Another way that the therapist can help is to provide an experience of ‘rupture and repair’. This reflects the fact that in any relationship there will be times of misunderstanding, where the response doesn’t match up well enough. In a healthy relationship, both people can tolerate this mismatch, albeit with some negative feelings around, and can sort things out by trying to communicate and rebuild the trusting relationship.
When teenagers are sent away from home to live at school, both they and their parents lose everyday opportunities for rupture and repair, as any conflict is ‘outsourced’ for handling by school staff. Many schools advertise this fact as a positive thing for the parents. However, in later life, ex-boarders can struggle to cope with conflict within relationships, including with their own offspring. The therapist models a mature response to conflict and shows the client how it feels to handle conflict in a healthy way.
Finally, a therapist may actually teach clients specific strategies for handling family life, e.g. win-win conflict resolution, and assertiveness techniques.
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