Boarding school syndrome

Boarding school is not an alien concept for me. My parents went to boarding school at 7, some of my siblings were boarders from 11, and I have counselled various clients who attended boarding school. I understand that world in a personal and professional capacity.


The practice of sending young children off into the care of strangers is not a new concept, but considering boarding school was around in Victorian times and most elites running this country went to boarding school, psychology seems to have taken a long time to catch up with 'boarding school syndrome', a term coined by psychotherapist, Joy Schaverien a decade ago. Boarding school syndrome refers to a range of emotional issues that have been linked to separation experienced by boarding school children. Today there is more debate about boarding schools, with conflicting arguments about class, unfair privilege, and opportunities, mixed up with negative notions about children’s emotional and mental health.

The basis of modern child development psychology is that a secure attachment is the crucial establishment of trust and security through a close primary carer. A trust and security that enables you to explore the world from a stable and loving base. Conversely, boarding schools are essentially institutions that bring up children on mass. Some would argue that these schools could not have broken or redirected a healthy attachment more effectively.

When living in Spain, I knew boarding school was a bewildering concept for Spanish parents. “Why have kids if you then pay to send them away?”, they would say (in Spanish!) perplexed. John Bowlby the psychologist famous for first coming up with attachment theory in the 1960s, described public school as part of “the time-honoured barbarism required to produce English gentlemen”. Bowlby boarded at 13: It's safe to say he was evidently against it!

Of course, it’s important to realise that family life isn´t all a bed of roses and just because a family has money doesn’t mean it meets the emotional needs of a child or functions effectively, you just need to watch Saltburn to understand that! I realise that there are many accounts of children who enjoy boarding school: sometimes home life can be so deficient in love or structure that the necessary attachments are better made at school.

Friendships in boarding school develop into sibling-type relationships with the bonds that tie you to a team. But for those who do suffer, who ache for parental daily emotional support, who do feel isolated, lonely, unheard, and even bullied or victims of sexual abuse – there is no escape. The scars from boarding school can run deep and impact greatly into adulthood.

Long term effects


Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can arise from early separation and emotional suppression. These schools can also be very pressurised and it’s easy to compare to others, never feeling “good enough”. “Achievement” is often the mantra of the perceived version of “success”. This can breed extreme competitiveness and perfectionism, driven by feelings of shame and never feeling “good enough”.  

Identity crisis

Some may have suppressed themselves so much that they have disconnected from their authentic self. Others may have learnt to mask who they really are and only show the world what they think the world wants to see – ambition, people pleasing, and again, perfectionism are common traits.

Relationship difficulties

Struggle with intimacy, due to fear of emotional vulnerability, abandonment and feeling unlovable. It can be defaulted not to let people in close and so deep emotional bonds are difficult to create. This can extend not only towards friends, a romantic relationship, or a spouse but also to children. Struggling with a secure attachment with your child can then inevitably influence the child, and so unintentionally, the syndrome has been passed down and impacted upon the next generation.

Mental health issues

Boarding school syndrome has been associated with various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, addiction, and unresolved trauma.

How counselling can help

Attachment therapy

Attachment therapy facilitates healing by focusing on trust and the ability to create deep and meaningful connections. A strong relationship between the client and therapist is an instrumental model for this. If the therapist uses the core conditions to provide a safe and non-judgemental space it will support the client to feel heard, validated and understood.

The stronger the relational depth the more the client can delve into emotional wounds associated with their boarding school experience. Understanding these root causes is crucial for initiating healing. Not only can the counsellor be a model for secure attachment it can also help the individual to reconnect with authentic feelings and learn how to express them. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT can help you to make sense of overwhelming problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. This makes it easier to see how they are connected and how they affect you. The aim is to modify inaccurate thinking whereby cognitive distortions are identified and challenged and replaced with alternate more positive beliefs. This helps you to learn more helpful ways of thinking and reacting in everyday situations.


Mindful practice brings awareness to what you’re directly experiencing in the present moment via your senses, or your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions. Essentially, it means being more aware of each moment and being fully engaged in what is happening in one's surroundings – with acceptance and without judgement.

Mindful practice has numerous benefits but in the case of those suffering from boarding school syndrome, it increases emotional regulation and therefore reduces stress and anxiety. Mindfully watching without judgement helps inner critic and cognitive improvements can alleviate depression and help build stronger relationships. Overall, the benefits can all lead to improved well-being. 
“Between stimulus and response, there is space, in that space is our power to choose our response” Viktor Frankl.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

ACT involves being fully open to experiencing your thoughts and emotions without trying to change them. When you are willing to accept and experience them as they are (just thoughts, just feelings), they don’t have so much power over what you do and the choices you make. Being less dominated by your mind and your feelings means you have more space to choose what actions you take, and more space to think in line with your values and what’s truly important to you.

For those grappling with their identity, ACT helps individuals explore their personal values, beliefs, and aspirations, facilitating the process of self-discovery and identity formation. Individuals can find a renewed sense of self, purpose, and direction in their lives. 

Compassion focused therapy (CFT)

Through compassionate and guided exploration, individuals can gain insight into the underlying causes of their struggles, such as attachment, emotional suppression, or low self-esteem. These symptoms are not the fault of the individual. It’s a survival mechanism that was learnt in school when emotions had to be suppressed or detached.

CFT enables the client to realise why you feel or present in a certain way. Instead of “What is wrong with you?” we look at “What happened to you?”. By validating, normalising, and giving compassion to the client´s emotional experiences, counselling can assist individuals in gradually unravelling the layers of emotional detachment and working on incorporating healthy reintegration of their emotions into their lives. 

To conclude, it can be true that the outside world thinks those who have been to boarding school are lucky, surrounded by material wealth with boundless opportunity, so the deficit in emotional care is not considered. As therapists, we understand the cost of a lack of emotional support in childhood and its ramifications later in life. I certainly give it great consideration and I know that:
All that glitters isn't always gold...

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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Kingsbridge TQ7 & Exeter EX1
Written by Deborah Pleasants, MBACP
Kingsbridge TQ7 & Exeter EX1

I am a MBACP Integrative Counsellor, with a particular interest in mental health. I offer face to face counselling in Kingsbridge, Devon, I also offer online therapy nationwide.

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