For many, boarding school memories can be positive and opinions are very divided over whether or not boarding schools are a good thing. If you found good friends, didn’t struggle academically, were not in a minority group and were sporty, the chances are that you had an OK if not a good time on the whole.
Therapy for ex- boarders: “Boarding School Survivors”
However, for a significant minority the experience of attending boarding school and of being separated from their family of origin, sometimes as young as 6 or 7 years old, has left them with emotional scars and unhelpful behaviours, developed as “survival strategies” from their time at boarding school, issues that can get in the way of the adult ex-boarder living their life to the full and engaging in healthy intimate relationships.
Therapy for boarding school issues & coping with the emotional fallout from attending boarding school
At worst, far from the protective care of loving parents, boarding school can be a place where bullying and abuse take place unnoticed and where children do not feel safe. This can result in painful and traumatic memories which may emerge in adulthood in a number of different contexts. Often these memories are buried until triggered as adults by people in the workplace or in intimate relationships or by having children.
Talking to a therapist about your boarding school issues or experiences, unpacking and processing how you feel about it as an adult can be helpful. It could involve allowing space for some anger and sadness about your experiences and what it was like to be separated from your family and “institutionalised” at a young age.
Boarding school issues & experiences vary for everyone
How people do at boarding school is down to a number of factors and for some, it can be a positive escape from difficult situations at home, an opportunity to try sports and activities that would not be available at home and a chance to spend time with peers and make friends and connections from different parts of the country. Indeed, some people thrive at boarding school and are glad of those experiences. For only children, it can be an opportunity to live with other children where they would not at home.
Even for those children who enjoy aspects of being at boarding school and all that it offers, it is not ideal to be separated from your family of origin at 6 or 7 or indeed at 11 or 13.
Boarding school is a hierarchical institution, many with old fashioned and outdated rules and attitudes and the child will need to learn to hide their vulnerabilities, and will not be able to access the same unconditional love and attention that they would in their family homes. Boarding schools can be rigid and formal with traditions and rituals and routines
that are not conducive to the individual and their particular needs and wants. It is rarely the nurturing and supportive environment children need to feel safe and thrive.
Furthermore, being detached from the nuclear family, then expected to re-attach in the holidays only to detach again in term time can cause habits and behaviours that we carry into adult life and have long-lasting and detrimental emotional effects, particularly in the area of intimate relationships.
Therapy for the effects of boarding school on relationships
Some ex-boarders might identify with one or more of the following in their relationships:
- Unemotional, often withholding their feelings, guarded and sarcastic
- Wary of commitment – attachment issues in intimate relationships, fear of being hurt
- Feeling the need to stay in in control of the relationship – controlling behaviours
- Preferring the formality of work relationships over intimate personal relationships
- Living a double life
- Finding it hard bonding and having a relationship with their children, not knowing how to be a loving parent
- Finding it hard to communicate their feelings with their partner, family of origin, children
- Fear of being abandoned, so either clingy or choosing not to get close
Talking about and looking at these habits, feelings and behaviours with a skilled and well-trained therapist can help ex-boarders to increase their awareness about how they interact with others and make positive changes.
Therapy for boarding school survivors suffering from depression, self-doubt or impostor syndrome
Some boarding school survivors experience bouts of depression as a result of not having learnt effectively how to self-regulate and soothe themselves as children. Coping mechanisms that were helpful and developed at school may no longer be serving them.
Looking at these “survival strategies” and coping mechanisms with the perspective of adulthood and with a skilled therapist alongside can help “un-learn” them and replace them with healthier responses to situations and triggers in adult life.
Therapy for survivors of bullying at boarding school
Bullying is awful wherever it happens, and it happens at day school as well as at boarding school. The difference is that it is harder to tell a caring, loving adult about it at boarding school. At boarding school, there is no getting away from it as the chances are you are with the perpetrator(s) night and day.
Bullying can be particularly pervasive at boarding school because all the children there are away from home and have been “institutionalised”, some from a very young age. They are not closely supervised in the way they are in a loving home.
In the hothouse of boarding school “Survival of the fittest” is common. Left to their own devices, children can be cruel without the close supervision of loving adults. There is nowhere to hide in boarding school, no relief for the victim of bullying at the end of the day, no escape to a safe loving home, and no parents to tell who will protect them and soothe them and back them up.
As a result, those who were bullied at boarding school often carry particularly deep emotional scars into adulthood. They can suffer from low self-esteem, confidence issues or, in some cases, become bullies themselves in the workplace.
Working with a therapist, ex-boarders can speak about their experience of being bullied at boarding school and work through their experiences finding a way to close a painful chapter in their early lives.
Boarding school issues therapy for those who were abused at boarding school
By their very nature, with children being away from home with no loving parent to protect them and watch over them carefully, boarding schools have long attracted predatory and abusive adults. It is a sad reality that both physical and sexual abuse has been rife in many boarding schools.
It is shocking to think that children put into the care of adults, by their own parents can end up being abused by the very adults entrusted with their care. Sadly, even now, there are reports of incidents of abuse taking place in boarding schools.
Abuse doesn’t just come from those running or teaching at boarding schools, it also at times comes from fellow pupils. Some forms of abuse are almost accepted or turned a blind eye to or even ritualised as “part of boarding school life”. They might even be considered “a rite of passage” or “the making of them” whilst, in reality, those subjected to these experiences are often left traumatised.
Trauma therapy can help heal some of these wounds and allow people to be the best versions of themselves.
Finding a therapist for boarding school issues:
If you are an ex-boarder suffering the effects of Boarding School Syndrome, finding the right therapist to talk through your boarding school issues is important.
All good therapy is based on a strong therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist. Trust, confidence, feeling safe and supported are all key to building a strong successful working relationship where there is good communication and mutual understanding. Both you and the therapist want the therapy to succeed.
Start by looking at profiles of therapists who work with ex-boarders or those suffering from Boarding School Syndrome and take time to read their profiles.
Contact a number of therapists to discuss your situation and how they might help you with your issues. Don’t’ be afraid to ask them about their experience of working with ex-boarders.
Resources and information about Boarding School Syndrome
If you are interested in reading more about the effects of boarding school you could look at Joy Schaverien’s excellent book Boarding School Syndrome, the psychological trauma of the “privileged” child.
© Brian Cotsen