Boarding school syndrome
Over the last 25 years, psychotherapists have begun to realise the profound and long-lasting effects which can be caused by sending children away to boarding school. In the UK, typical ages for the child to be separated from the parents are 8 and 13 years old, though occasionally it can happen as young as 4! Two therapists in particular have contributed greatly to the understanding of these issues: Nick Duffell and Joy Schaverien.
Schaverien described what she calls ‘Boarding School Syndrome’, a pattern of behaving which begins in childhood and continues into adult life, caused by the trauma of the abrupt breaking of attachment bonds and the difficulty of feeling safe in the new environment.
Nick Duffell has identified what he calls the ‘Strategic Survival Personality’, which the child rapidly develops in order to survive the ordeal of being sent away from home and having to be ‘independent’, ‘grown up’ and ‘self-sufficient’. The child copes by splitting off and ‘hiding’ the vulnerable and dependent parts of him/herself, appearing competent, successful and independent on the surface.
Unfortunately, in adult life this Strategic Survival Personality can make intimacy incredibly difficult for the ex-boarder. The ability to emotionally need and depend on someone else has been split off and is no longer available. Feelings of vulnerability can arouse intense shame and/or rage in the adult. It can also be difficult for ex-boarders to relate to their own children. In the work-place, survivors of boarding can struggle to provide leadership which is appropriate for the 21st century world, finding it very difficult to identify their own and other people’s needs, and to work in a co-operative rather than a hierarchical way. In the worst case scenario, a survivor may resort to a bullying stance which was learned as a response to stress in their childhood.
The good news is that now Boarding School Syndrome is becoming better known, it is easier to find a therapist who has the awareness and extra training to help survivors learn new, appropriate and essentially grown up strategies for living their lives.