Abandonment and healing past wounds

Just like children in care, those removed from their homes and sent off to boarding school are also looked after by strangers. This form of ‘privileged abandonment’, is an experience that for many results in lasting emotional wounds.

The recent Boarding School Survivor’s conference organised by the University of Brighton was a powerful and moving experience. Almost 70 years on from John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, it’s hard to believe that some parents still make the decision to send their children to boarding school. Bowlby himself was sent away, aged eight, an event which undoubtedly influenced his work on the importance of early relationships with our primary carers.

While mobile phones, cheerful interiors and better pastoral care are now cited as reasons why going to boarding school today is a very different experience, compared to in the 60's and 70's, do these developments really remove the sense of abandonment many children feel at being ‘dumped’ by their families?

It’s true, that for some children, from particularly chaotic homes, these schools may be a preferable option; offering stability and predictability: For others though, being sent to school aged seven or eight is damaging in the extreme. The on-going trauma many ex-boarders experience is collectively referred to as ‘boarding school syndrome’, a phrase coined by the Jungian analyst, Joy Schaverien, after her experience of working with clients, many of whom had been sent away to school.

The emotions associated with the syndrome, such as abandonment, loss and a sense of imprisonment exist alongside the ‘double bind’ the child is likely to experience. The fact that they are told they are lucky and privileged to be sent away to an expensive school, leaves them feeling there must be something wrong with them, as what they actually feel is fear and loneliness.

While stories of brutality, bullying and sexual abuse grab the headlines, many boarding school survivors say that although they were not treated badly, they still live with an on-going sense of loss and sadness. While teachers and staff did their best, the absence of someone to love them and to wipe away tears or contain their fears, is something their adult selves continue to mourn.

Former boarders also talk of a lost childhood – and how there was little room for playfulness, reverie or privacy, they often comment they have few memories of this time. Many express the belief that they had to grow up overnight. In psychological terms, we can talk about a kind of ‘splitting’ taking place, when the vulnerable child who has to be protected, is unconsciously split off from the part of the personality, that must outwardly conform in order to survive.

While boarding school syndrome applies to a specific range of experiences, resulting from a specific event in an individual’s life, many people come to counselling or psychotherapy because of past traumas, often relating back to childhood. They are struggling with similar issues: Anger, depression, confusion, abandonment, betrayal, loss, difficulties with relationships and intimacy and addiction problems.

Being able to talk about traumatic events in our own lives in counselling or therapy, with someone professionally trained to listen, can in time lead to a level of acceptance and a greater understanding of who we are. This in turns leaves us free to look forward to a life of enhanced possibilities, hope and happiness.


The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System, Nick Duffell

Boarding School Syndrome, Joy Schaverien

Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class, Alex Renton


Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Brighton BN1

Written by Debbie Lewis

Brighton BN1

I am an experienced and approachable psychotherapist registered with the UKCP and accredited by the BPC. I have worked with a wide range of clients from 17-70, in the NHS as well as for charities and in private practice. I specialise in working with anxiety, depression, abandonment, relationship and family issues and life stages and transitions.

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