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Boarding school - a poor preparation for emotional wellbeing in adulthood

The website boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk suggests that adults who were not able to cope with the shock and isolation of being sent away from home at a young age suffer a wide variety of symptoms including:

  • Relationship difficulties
  • Workaholism
  • Inability to relax
  • Isolation
  • Substance abuse
  • A sense of failure
  • Physical, sleep and sexual problems.

Of course, there are some people who have a good experience of boarding school, but others have found being sent away from their parents/carers at a young age was extremely traumatic. It left them unable to cope with or process very powerful feelings of homesickness and neglect. They were overwhelmed by these feelings and the people who they would turn to for help were not there. In fact, confusingly, it was the people who they would turn to for help who had sent them away and put them in this position; and this experience was repeated at the beginning of each term when the child was sent away again.

Joy Schaverien, a psychoanalyst who has written on this topic (1), suggests that seven and eight-year olds still rely on their carers for many aspects of their daily life including dressing, washing and putting to bed. Being removed from their carers is incomprehensible and causes a rupture in these most important relationships. As children they are unable to process these feelings. One way of managing is to cut off from the feelings and appear to manage. Whilst this might be a successful coping strategy for the child, if it is carried on as a way of relating to themselves and others during adulthood it can prove disastrous. They are left with a feeling of being isolated and an inability to manage difficult and painful feelings. This goes a long way to explaining the symptoms stated above.

Another aspect of the situation which is confusing is the fact that this sense of being neglected goes alongside an understanding of having had an education and a lifestyle that is very privileged. The sense of privilege is hard to reconcile with the feelings of neglect. It adds to the pressure to get on with life and makes it hard to acknowledge the trauma which is often at the root of the ex-boarder’s symptoms.

Psychotherapy is often sought to provide relief from these symptoms. An ex-boarder is often not initially aware of the link between the problems that they are struggling with and their childhood experiences. Finding a safe place to talk and reflect offers people an opportunity to make some links with their childhood and gain some understanding of their symptoms. It allows them to put into words the feelings that they had little awareness of and were unable to express as a child. This ability to recognise and communicate allows them to process and come to terms with what has happened to them, which in turn offers the opportunity to understand themselves and to change.

1.  Schaverien, J (2015) Boarding School Syndrome, London, Routledge

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Written by Kate Jhugroo PG dip. Psych, UKCP

I am a psychotherapist working in private practice in Surbiton and Guildford. I offer one to one therapy, working with men and women with a wide range of symptoms and have an interest in working with people who have had traumatic childhood experiences.

I provide a safe place to come and talk about whatever may be troubling you.… Read more

Written by Kate Jhugroo PG dip. Psych, UKCP

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