Boarding school syndrome

“Underage soldiers going to war”. These are the words an ex-boarder client, Charlotte* recently used to describe her perception of children’s experience of going to boarding school.


One of the first difficulties therapists often find with supporting ex-boarders is that they are far less likely to seek therapy than many other client groups in the first place. Although awareness is growing, it is still a relatively new and little-known concept and often, the link to boarding school will be first recognised by the therapist rather than the client themselves.

In addition, we know that boarders learn from an early age to be self-sufficient so the idea of needing a therapist may feel shameful. Often, they also understand that their educational setting was a privilege and to associate it with negativity might feel ungrateful. Even when the link is recognised, you could argue that having your experiences described as a ‘syndrome’ may be a deterrent to seeking therapy.

What brings an ex-boarder to therapy?

They are possibly successful in their career and have a family and a good circle of friends but it might be that somehow, it feels as if something is missing in their life.

They could be experiencing a variety of physical issues that medical professionals don’t seem to be able to make sense of. They may feel bothered at there being significant chunks of time in their life that they seemingly have no memory of.

In many cases, their own child just turned the age they were when they started at boarding school and seeing how small and young they are makes them realise suddenly for the first time just how vulnerable they must have been when they were sent away.

Thoughts and feelings around experiences at boarding school can be confusing – and also quite complex. As mentioned above, there is often shame at feeling the need to seek emotional support but often, there is not even an awareness that they may need the support.

Noticing repeated relationship difficulties, intense feelings of anxiety or traumatic physical experiences may present – but so ingrained is the belief in non-reliance of others, they may truly believe, "I’m fine" or worse, "I’m really not fine but I don’t dare tell anyone".

I was recently asked to provide therapeutic support to ex-boarders taking part in a documentary about boarding school. Of the thirteen participants offered counselling sessions following their interview, only one person accepted – and this was for just one session of the ten offered, almost all thanking me politely for the opportunity but telling me that my help wouldn’t be needed.

Similarly, I have clients tell me they chose me as a therapist because of my interest in boarding school syndrome, telling me that they too went to boarding school – but with the add-on that they themselves "…do not have boarding school syndrome".

Children are not soldiers, however, our brains are not fully developed until our early twenties so a young child simply does not have the ability to really survive without the nurturing of caregivers – which boarding school does not allow.

Boarding school syndrome specialist and author of ‘The Making of Them’, Nick Duffell tells us that in order to tolerate this environment, boarders unconsciously assume one of three roles, which he calls strategic survival personalities.

These are:

  • complier
  • crushed
  • rebel

Whilst all three provide an effective coping mechanism for the boarder whilst at school, they can later create difficulties in adulthood; how does the complier acknowledge that they have a shadow side? How does the crushed admit to themselves and others that, despite their robust upbringing, they actually find it difficult to cope with everyday life? What if the rebel is frightened to lose this image for fear of being unnoticed?

Ex-boarders’ emotions can sometimes be so suppressed that there is a complete disconnection between terrible events that happened and their feelings towards them. I have had clients talk in detail of sexual violence experienced whilst at boarding school; shocking incidents but recounted to me as if we were having a staffroom chat.

We will allow you to tell your story at your own pace, understanding that it might be the first time those words have ever been said.

As ex-boarder therapists, we want you to know that the support is out there. We acknowledge the wealth of skills you learnt, the fantastic academic teaching you likely received and the unique fun you had when you were at boarding school. We want you to know that we also acknowledge there were difficulties that came with your time there and we want to help you untangle these.

We also know that talking emotions might be unfamiliar to you and we’ll respect this by gently encouraging you to talk whilst being sensitive to the pace you need to work at. We know it’s probably taken some courage to start therapy. We will provide a safe space in which we can help you connect to emotions, and we’ll ensure that you know it is acceptable to do so. We will listen to your stories of loneliness, bullying or abuse and we’ll believe you and not be shocked by them.

We will allow you to tell your story at your own pace, understanding that it might be the first time those words have ever been said. We will be saddened and touched by what you say but at the same time be the strength to encourage you to express it.

If you’re an ex-boarder and interested in support, there are helpful resources on the Boarding School Survivors website. You can also contact me via my profile. 

*Thank you, Charlotte for your thought-provoking quote. (Name used with her permission.)

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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Gloucester, Gloucestershire, GL1 2BY
Written by Helen Jenkins, FdA Therapeutic Counselling
Gloucester, Gloucestershire, GL1 2BY

Helen Jenkins is an experienced general therapist working with a range of difficulties such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem and trauma, with a special interest in Boarding School Syndrome. She has a practice at Gloucester Quays and also works via Zoom. Her approach is eclectic with an authentic and humanistic base.

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