Boarding school survivors: Specialist therapy for ex-boarders

Many people have been moved recently by Prince Harry’s openness about his own experience following his mother’s death. In an interview with journalist Bryony Gordon, he talked about his coping strategy, and how it had ultimately turned out to be very unhelpful. He said:


“Shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well. My way of dealing with it was refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help? It’s only going to make you sad. So from an emotional side, I was like: ‘Right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything.'”

Harry’s bereavement happened when he was 12 years old, and by this age he had already been trained to deal with emotional shocks by shutting down. This training began when he was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight. Boarding schools know that young children get extremely upset when their secure attachments to home and loved ones are suddenly ruptured, and the staff work hard to close down this distress as efficiently as possible.

Parents are encouraged to have minimal contact in the first couple of weeks, the children are told they will soon “get over it”, and a schedule of relentless activities leaves them no free time, keeping them constantly busy and distracted. Prince Harry’s comment that it was better not to think about his mother as it would only make him sad shows that his early training was working very well.

However, what starts out as a successful coping strategy for the child becomes a terrible problem for the adult ex-boarder. The schools are very efficient at creating young people who are highly successful at functioning, but who have learned to hide away all vulnerability, developing what has been termed a ‘Strategic Survival Personality’. This helps the child feel safe enough to cope with boarding school, but prevents them from growing up in a healthy way.

In adult life, the ex-boarder can seem very polished and confident, but their ability to connect with/relate to the emotions of other people, and their own emotions, is heavily compromised. This can become gradually apparent, as happened with Prince Harry. He admitted that this also affected his work life. Leaders who are not able to assess their own emotional state or the emotional climate of their workforce can make poor decisions under stress, as they do not have access to the full picture. Good decision-making requires logical thinking side by side with intuitive awareness.

As ex-boarders proceed through life and acquire partners and children, their ‘brittleness’ can show up. They often withdraw from family interactions and try to keep at a ‘safe’ distance. They may be workaholics who find it impossible to handle unstructured time. Their inability to tolerate or understand others’ emotions can leave partners feeling cut off and rejected.

Sometimes ex-boarders have crises triggered by life events, such as their own child reaching the age of 8, but they may not even realise what has sent them into a spin. This is one reason why it is useful to have a specially trained therapist if you have been to boarding school. They can spot common patterns of behaviour and typical reactions that a non-specialist might not notice.

Another reason to choose a specialist is because ex-boarders often believe that they themselves are fine, and that the problem resides in their partner/boss/child. The significant other may be described as unstable, too emotional, depressed, anxious etc. In fact, the ex-boarder was trained at school to be the ‘ok’ one, not the needy or upset child, not the ‘weak’ cry-baby, and so the other person in their life may take on this role instead.

A well-trained therapist knows this pattern and is able to untangle what is really going on. They are also able to understand the double-binds that occur for children at boarding school, involving the privilege and entitlement that go hand in hand with this type of education.

In 2016, Nick Duffell and Thurstine Bassett published Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege: a guide to therapeutic work with boarding school survivors, followed up by a training course for therapists in the UK. This approach covers three phases of the therapy: Recognition, Acceptance and Change. It uses a structured framework to move towards healing.

The first step for the client is actually acknowledging being wounded; the second is experiencing and accepting feelings about being sent away; the third is understanding how they survived; the fourth finding acceptance; and the fifth is starting to have healthier behaviour patterns in the place of strategic survival tactics. This is often a long and complicated process which takes commitment and determination from both the client and the therapist.

Although boarding schools appear to have changed radically in recent years, with central heating and Skype, the basic facts of how children and young people have to survive the separation form home are still the same.

Research conducted at the University of Nottingham in 2016, in which current boarding school counsellors were interviewed, revealed that children are still cutting themselves off from intimacy and are hiding their inner vulnerable selves under a polished veneer, as they strive to appear ‘independent’ and ‘successful’.

The counsellors worry about the way that the children’s shattered attachments and lack of physical proximity to loved ones are setting them up for relational issues in adult life. Specialist therapists can help ex-boarders undo the damage and begin to live in a healthy way, no matter whether they were sent away to school ten years ago or sixty.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S10 2SE
Written by Virginia Sherborne, MBACP (Accred.)
Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S10 2SE

I am a qualified counsellor and accredited member of the BACP, seeing clients at The Practice Rooms near the centre of Sheffield and online. I have specialist training in bereavement, rape/sexual abuse, trauma and parenting. My clients include young people as well as adults.I can help you to: find...

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