So, what is Boarding School Syndrome?

·8-min read
Photo credit: Florence Ogram - Getty Images
Photo credit: Florence Ogram - Getty Images

There’s nothing more intimidating than being sent to the head teacher’s office. At 11 years old, most of us would be teary. But, unlike most 11-year-olds, Fleur couldn’t go home and cry to her parents that evening... That's because Fleur's school was also where she lived. The school secretary reminded her before she went in to hold her tears. And, as she sat on the other side of an intimidatingly large desk, the headmaster, towering above her, reminded her not to cry. He didn’t tolerate tears.

“Looking back on that moment, it felt like it was a very adult and old fashioned environment. Stiff upper lip. The thing with boarding school is that they treat you like adults. And, there’s a benefit to that, but there’s also plenty that you need to unpick,” says Fleur.

At nine years old, Fleur was sent to a large international boarding school due to her parent’s careers. Now, at 30, Fleur is living in London. She first heard about Boarding School Syndrome earlier this year during a therapy session. “I’d never heard of it. But my therapist felt that it might help me understand some of the difficulties I’d been having. When I gave it more thought, it was easier to understand that I might have some residual trauma relating to my experiences.”

What's the theory?

The term, Boarding School Syndrome, was coined by psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Professor Joy Schaverien, who is also the author of a book on the subject. It refers to a cluster of symptoms such as anxiety, difficulty communicating and maintaining intimate relationships. It’s not a medical diagnosis, but a proposal that there's an identifiable group of learned behaviours and emotional states that may follow growing up in boarding school, which can lead to serious psychological distress.

“Back in the 90s, I worked with a patient and we realised that a lot of his trauma stemmed from his experience at boarding school,” explains Schaverien. “I started to become aware of colleagues having similar conversations and saw the damage that these institutions have on the children that attend them. In May 2011, I introduced the term Boarding School Syndrome to identify a set of lasting psychological problems that are observable in adults who, as children, were sent away from their home at an early age to boarding schools.”

Schaverien began to develop the theory, working with more and more patients who had been educated in boarding schools across the UK. Schaverien split the core impact of boarding school into an acronym. “There’s an A for abandonment, B for bereavement, C for captivity and D for dissociation,” Schaverien explains. Each of these can cause anxiety, depression and other behaviours, such as an inability to maintain long-term relationships.

Abandonment issues

“Abandonment is when children under ten – or even older – are left behind, it can be utterly devastating. We’re leaving our children to the whims of essentially unknown adults. A lot of these children are simply left to ‘get on with it’, we’ve taken their home and sense of security and that feeling can be hard for young people to manage,” continues Schaverien. This abandonment may result in a permanent lack of trust in loving relationships in anticipation of rejection.

Photo credit: Florence Ogram - Getty Images
Photo credit: Florence Ogram - Getty Images

Former boarding school student, Cyn, 33, says she fears she’s going to lose someone as soon as she starts liking them – which makes her relive the trauma of her youth. “With my family living in Hong Kong, there would be this moment, once you’ve got off the plane and the coaches, you’ve done the big busy dinner. And you’re just all alone in your bedroom with your suitcase. I’d just be unable to stop crying. This feeling of emptiness, knowing that for another three months I wouldn’t see my family.”

Although Fleur says she never felt “abandoned” as such, she still experiences “separation anxiety” from her family and friends. “Especially when I have enjoyed their company and we are parting ways.”

Schaverien explains that what boarders refer to as homesickness is actually a major bereavement. “When children are sent to boarding school they lose everything. It’s a mourning process. Some schools even advise parents to avoid contact with the child for the first few weeks to allow them to settle in, but this too can be devastating.”

Jessica, like Fleur, is undergoing therapy. “I didn’t go to counselling with my experience at boarding school in mind, I wanted support for anxiety and issues around disordered eating, but my therapist brought it up and I felt like it clicked. I thought about the pressure and stress I used to feel around food and realised it came from my experience at boarding school. It’s not like having a meal with your family.”

Jessica also says she feels a sense of guilt discussing this because “boarding school is also responsible for all the success I’ve had. I have an incredible career – one that came about directly because of my education. My parent’s spent a lot of money on making sure the school I went to delivered excellent results. It seems churlish to complain when I didn’t really have a hard time growing up.”

And with 90% of boarders attending the university of their choice, as well as making up a large percentage of senior government roles, it’s hard to argue with the academic benefits.

Tia, who is now 24, attended two boarding schools from ages eight to 15 and had completely different experiences at both. “My parents split and my dad was working at sea. Obviously, he wanted to give me the best start in life,” Tia explains. But there were challenges. “I really struggled with being away from my family. The first school that I went to at eight had more of a family feel. In fact, the headteacher had his own children there. The second was much bigger. There wasn’t the same support, you were often just left in your room to get on with it.”

No escape

Boarding schools, by nature, are incredibly secure and most students have far more supervision than their day-school peers. “Children are essentially captive, they are not allowed to leave,” explains Schaverien “It’s a prison-like environment. Unlike day school, children are held to a much tighter routine. Every meal and bedtime is regulated, they have little to no flexibility and in some schools they cannot leave the premises without permission.”

“It was tricky for things like birthdays,” says Tia. “My dad had to send written permission for me to attend and with him being at sea, it was often tricky to get things in writing to arrive in time. There was this one birthday party, they managed to reach him but he couldn’t get written permission in time, so I couldn't go.” For Tia, this meant they spent the day within the school grounds.

For Fleur, her experience was a double-edged sword. “The fact that you are with lots of people your own age can feel like a dream. You’re always with your friends. But when you aren’t getting along with someone and you want a break from that environment, there isn’t necessarily someone to go to that isn’t a figure of authority and isn’t rather intimidating – there's no escape to be with your own family who ‘get you’."

But, Schaverien highlights that the D, for dissociation, is the most common issue in ex-boarders. Dissociation is a mental process of disconnecting from one's thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.

“I feel like if I need help, my first instinct is to get on with it. Try not to make a fuss,” Tia explains. Which, according to Schaverien’s theory, is a symptom of dissociation. Schaverien adds, “there’s no point in crying if no one cares that you are.”

“I’m definitely unpicking some of the emotional education,” comments Fleur. “When I had my first relationship I tried to project this adultness, even though I was barely 18. I wanted to move things faster than would be possible. You’re treated like an adult from the age of nine, so you act like one. But, I had this epiphany at 25 when I discovered coming-of-age films, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I feel like I went through my coming of age in my mid-twenties.”

And Fleur isn’t alone. “This sounds strange, but I feel like I’m finally allowing myself to like things that I wanted to like as a teenager. I spent so much time acting like an adult that in my mid-twenties, I’m finding a lot of comfort in it,” says Tia.

And when I ask Fleur if she would send her own children to boarding school. “My own child? God no. Never.” Which perhaps says it all.

Schaverien adds if you feel that you could benefit from support with your experience at boarding school, you can explore the boarding school survivors forum or contact your GP for support.

You Might Also Like

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting