Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
In wealthy circles and the upper echelons of society, one elite tradition is to send children away to boarding school. It is considered a privileged path, paved with golden opportunities. Private boarding schools provide exceptional education and offer pupils elevated prospects of achieving a place at a top university. In fact, 90% of boarders proceed to the university of their choice.1
The many benefits of a private education include unique learning opportunities, smaller class sizes, and great career prospects, but evidence suggests that children who are sent to boarding school at a young age can suffer “irrevocable loss of primary attachments” and “for many, this constitutes a significant trauma.”2
There are long-term implications for the child. This blog explains what happens to a child when they are prematurely separated from their home and family and how the boarding school experience can affect them in later life.
What is boarding school syndrome?
Jungian psychoanalyst, Joy Schaverian, author of Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological trauma of the ‘privileged’ child, was the first to coin the phrase ‘boarding school syndrome.’ She likens a child’s experience of attending boarding school to that of someone being taken into care.1
In the case of boarding school, the child is wrenched from the family home under the guise of a privileged opportunity. The child can feel they have no right to feel pain. With no one close to soothe them, the child conforms to their new life, developing an armor to hide the vulnerability they feel.
Schaverian became increasingly aware of the consequences of boarding school in her practice in the UK, where she found a distorted pattern of symptoms and behaviours amongst her adult clients who had boarded.
She discovered that many were suffering from hidden trauma and that they were unaware of the connection between their current difficulties and their traumatic experience of boarding school as a child.
Schaverian noticed that individuals who had boarded had developed a “defensive and protective encapsulation of the self” simply to survive. Subsequently, “the true identity of the person remains hidden.”
This, as Schaverian explains, constitutes a significant trauma that continues into adult life, distorting intimate relationships.
Hidden trauma and bereavement
When a young child is sent to boarding school they lose their attachment figures, as well as losing their home. Some who are sent to school abroad may not even be given the opportunity to go home for holidays. Children are unable to process this loss. Severe emotional distress is often buried, usually due to a fear of being bullied or ridiculed.
Children are traumatised by the forced separation from their parents. A child must learn to live without the closeness of their parents (or nannies). It is akin to learning to live without love. But this huge loss for a child is downplayed by the parents, school, teachers, and older students; all the while the child is feeling homesick and heartbroken and is grieving. A child in this situation quickly learns to cover up their true feelings. They are told how lucky they are by their parents and teachers. And at boarding school, tears simply are not permitted.
For those who can go home for holidays, the same trauma is relived when they are sent away again. There is a repeated pattern of broken attachment and bereavement. In the confines of a structured boarding school, the emotional distress gets deeply suppressed.
Abuse, bullying, and rituals
Boarding school is a 24/7 experience with nowhere to run; it’s often a place where bullying is normalised. A melting pot of emotions exists at boarding schools, but a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality means that many feelings aren’t deemed acceptable or discussed. There is literally no help; telling tales just makes things worse.
Bullying isn’t confined to pupils. Some teachers are bullies too, acting callously and cruel towards students, and even staff, they take a dislike to.
Of course, bullying happens in non-boarding schools, but a key difference for boarders is the relentlessness. There is nowhere to run, and no parents or siblings around to step in. There is no support and no love. Children struggle to understand why their parents have sent them to ‘hell’.
Sexual abuse in boarding schools is also rife. With no parents to pick up on signs that abuse is taking place, abusers feel enabled in the boarding school environment. Children can also misconceive and welcome the attention if they feel abandoned by their parents.
George Monbiot, environmentalist, and writer describes his experience at boarding school as “remorseless and inescapable”. As a child with a stammer, bad at sport, and with heterodox opinions, Monbiot says he would have been bullied at any school, but as a boarder, he says, it sometimes lasted through the night.3
Paris Hilton has recently spoken of her experience at a boarding school for ‘troubled teenagers’ in Utah. Speaking to Newsweek, she said, “That experience, and the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse I suffered, led to years of trauma-induced insomnia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder that I and countless other survivors of institutional child abuse have struggled with for years.”4
Boarding schools are also notorious for admission rituals. Initiation ceremonies range from so-called ‘harmless fun’ to incidents of extreme physical or sexual abuse. These constitute highly traumatising experiences that leave deep emotional scars.
Dissociation as a survival technique
Dissociation is a break in how the mind handles information. A person can dissociate from thoughts, feelings, memories, surroundings, or even identity. Dissociating from emotional turmoil is a survival technique that is common in boarders.
Steinberg and Schnall (2001) define dissociation as “an adaptive defense in response to high stress or trauma characterized by memory loss and a sense of disconnection from oneself or one’s surroundings.”5
It is this mechanism that helps boarding school children cope with their traumatic and stressful situations.
Read more about how trauma can cause dissociation here.
The consequences of boarding school in adulthood
Like Schaverian, Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist, and former boarder and boarding schoolteacher, observed that children survive at boarding school by cutting off their feelings and constructing a defensive self.6
“Prematurely separated from home and family, from love and touch, they must speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults”, he explains.
The consequences, Duffell says, are thus: “Paradoxically, they then struggle to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
Schaverian describes the development of a split in personality. “It is common for the broken attachments, the loss of family and home, to cause a split in the personality between the armoured boarding school child (self) and the sensitive, vulnerable, home-child (self).”7
Duffell also describes the boarding school experience as one where a child must stay alert to keep out of trouble, and crucially must never look unhappy (otherwise they risk being bullied). A child quickly learns that they must never look vulnerable in any way, and so, Duffell explains, “they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out onto others, and develop duplicitous personalities.”
Children, he says, become attached to the internal structure of boarding school, rather than their parents, and as a result, they take with them into adulthood “a permanent unconscious anxiety.”
An ex-boarder may appear socially confident, but underneath there is often a deep mistrust in relationships. A person in this situation may prematurely withdraw from relationships because they fear rejection. It is also common for people with boarding school syndrome to end therapy – which can be viewed as another form of relationship.
What are the tell-tale signs of boarding school syndrome?
Many people with boarding school syndrome will show some or all the following symptoms and traits:
- Problems with anger, depression, or anxiety
- Failure to sustain relationships and difficulties with emotional intimacy
- Fear of abandonment and/or separation anxiety
- Lack of trust
- Alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictive behaviours
- Eating disorders
- Controlling or perfectionist tendencies
- Bullying behaviours
- Fear of failure
- Find it hard to switch off and relax
- Feel alone, even in a group of people
- A feeling of emptiness
- Problems parenting children
How to overcome boarding school syndrome
Most people don’t seek help for boarding school syndrome per se – it’s not a medical term, more a hypothesis or term coined to describe a set of symptoms and behaviours. In most cases, a person is more likely to be seeking help to overcome general depression, relationship difficulties, or other emotional problems.
The impact of boarding school on a person isn’t usually recognised by the individual. They may in fact feel their schooling was exceptional and a privilege. The neglect or attachment issues are covered up by a false sense of independence. The repercussions of a person’s experience at boarding school usually become apparent during psychotherapy.
At CALDA we regularly treat clients who have been affected by their childhood experiences at boarding school. Our team of therapists is highly skilled at working with people who have suffered attachment trauma.
We help unmask the suffering and support you to overcome traumatising childhood experiences through a highly private, tailor-made rehabilitation program. We offer the utmost modern and state-of-the-art medicine in combination with premium hotel service and the highest discretion.
Please contact us for a preliminary chat. We are happy to answer your questions.
- UK Boarding Schools. 2020. Boarding In The UK. Website ukboardingschools.com [accessed 11Oct2022]
- Schaverian, J. Boarding School Syndrome. Website: joyschaverian.com [accessed 11Oct2022]
- Monbiot, G. 26Mar1998. Acceptable Cruelty. monbiot.com [accessed 13Oct2022]
- Smith, R. 12May22. Paris Hilton Reveals Alleged Sexual Abuse at Boarding School She Attended. Newsweek.
- Pollock, A. 29Apr2015. The Brain in Defense Mode: How Dissociation Helps Us Survive. Good Therapy Blog.
- Duffell, N. 9Jun2014. Why boarding schools produce bad leaders. The Guardian.
- Schaverian, J. 9Dec2020. The Long Read: Boarding School Syndrome. Private Education Policy Forum. Website pepf.co.uk [accessed 11Oct2022]