Boarding school - abuse

Children are sent to boarding school for many different reasons and at different ages. In the UK, some go as young as aged seven. This may even be considered a privilege and a tradition in the family. Sometimes children are sent for practical reasons because their parents work abroad and travel a lot. They may assume that this will give their child stability and a good education which will stand them in good stead for their future.

When children are sent to boarding school, they experience a profound sense of loss as their attachment relationships are repeatedly broken. Children find out quite quickly that if they are going to cry, they had better do it in private for fear of being ridiculed or told to 'grow up.' Once they have left home the first time, things are never quite the same again. There are multiple losses - of their parents, their siblings, their home, their friendships and relationships and even the comforting rituals that they experienced within the family unit. This is a form of bereavement which is often not recognised. It may be described as homesickness and children may be expected to get over it and adjust to their new situation. In adjusting, children can appear to be mature and 'very grown up.' However this belies the wounds which are hidden within as they learn to suppress their emotions. The effects of this can be profound and long lasting.

Sadly some children experience bullying or other forms of abuse at boarding school. Abuse can be psychological, physical or sexual. This may be at the hands of other children or even the staff. Children may cope with this by appearing to be okay, saying nothing and internalising their distress. It is very frightening for a child to have no-one that they can tell. Abuse compromises the ability to trust other people and damages self-esteem. In addition, abusers often threaten their victims with further abuse if they tell anyone. This can lead to profound anxiety, shame and anger.

It can be confusing for children to understand why their parents, who love them so much, have sent them to boarding school (which is apparently good for them) are not there to comfort or rescue them from their distress. They may wrongly assume then that they must be bad and that the abuse is their fault.

In counselling, it is crucial to give clients time to tell their story, to believe what they are saying and allow them space to process what has happened to them. Sometimes the story is so difficult that words are difficult. Silence is OK in counselling - it is filled with meaning. Drawing or writing can also be ways of expressing the unspeakable. Counselling gives people a voice.

Boarding school abuse perplexes people because it happens to children who are apparently 'privileged'. The reality is that abuse happens at all ages, in all the socio-economic groups.

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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Written by Stella Goddard, BA (Hons) Registered MBACP (Accred)

I have a degree in counselling and am registered and accredited with BACP, ACC and NCS. I have extensive experience working with adult individuals and couples from many different backgrounds. Attending workshops increases my competence with all my clinical work. My particular interest is in working with those who have been abused.… Read more

Written by Stella Goddard, BA (Hons) Registered MBACP (Accred)

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