Boarding School. A privilege or hidden form of Child Neglect?

Are you a Therapist working with adults who have been to Boarding School? Or someone interested in how a boarding school education may impact a child’s upbringing and subsequently their behaviour as an adult?

Come and join me for this online workshop next Wednesday evening – 4th November. 6-8pm.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/boarding-school-a-privilege-or-a-hidden-form-of-child-neglect-tickets-122359302969

Exercise – Why do we really do it?

I passed a friend on the way back from the gym this morning at 7am.  She sent me a message saying, “I can’t believe you get up so early to go to Crossfit. “

I realise that to many it may seem like madness, some crazy fitness addiction, a punishing regime.  For many people, there is no doubt that it can become this and people can also use intensive exercise as a way to manage their anxiety and emotions. It can replace other addictions they may have used in the past such as drugs and alcohol, be part of an eating disorder and can work as a distraction or a form of control.  

I began running about 10 years ago and quickly noticed how dependent I became on it.  The run round the park became 5k, then 10k, a half marathon and then the Brighton Marathon.  Two weeks before I was due to run in the Brighton Marathon, I tore my calf muscle and was unable to take part.  I was gutted, but the hardest part of it all was being told that I couldn’t run for several months in order to give my calf the time it needed to heal. This took six months. I realised then how dependent I had become on running for my mental health.  How it had become an addiction that had helped me manage the difficulties in my marriage, my loss of self and my low self- esteem which had plummeted as a result of being a stay at home mum.  It meant that I didn’t have to focus on the lifestyle changes that I really needed to make, as each time I shut the front door I could leave all those worries behind me and get my fix of endorphins.  It was my substitute anti-depressant.  As a result of my injury, I had to take stock and work through all the emotional difficulties I was having at the time and make fundamental changes to the way I was living my life. I couldn’t run away from them any longer. Literally and metaphorically.

A few years later, a friend encouraged me to put my name into the ballot for the London Marathon.  Many people try year after year, so it was a complete surprise to get a place. This time I did it differently. I trained slowly and gently, listening to my body and what it needed.  When I had a twinge I rested, I had sports massages and a few weeks before the event, I took myself off to a yoga retreat. Running the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life. The atmosphere was electric, the sun was shinning and I crossed that finish line in disbelief.  I think I was in shock for a while.  Everything worked.  Nothing was injured.  I know that the reason I was able to do so was because of the way I had looked after my body and mind in a completely different way than I had those years earlier.  This time I wasn’t running away from anything or pounding the pavements in desperation to get that fix I needed to make my life more manageable.

Exercise for me now is incredibly important in maintaining my physical and mental health but is no longer the coping mechanism it once was. I go to Crossfit three times a week, regularly sea swim and try and do some yoga.  In this morning’s session, I lifted some weights whilst we swapped stories about what posters we had on our walls as teenagers (Pamela Anderson and bikes seemed to be a popular theme for the men). We discussed music and shared our nostalgia for gigs and the loss we feel with their absence at the moment. We discussed Freddie Flintoff and his documentary on Bulimia that was shown this week. The causes of Bulimia and how it is such a hidden illness for men, despite 1 in 4 sufferers being male.  We stretched. And we ate cake on the way out that someone had baked.

The physical fitness is important but equally as important for me is the connections, the laughs, the conversations, and spending time with a group of people in my community made up of different genders and ages that I may not mix with in other parts of my life.  As we all discovered in Lockdown, Social isolation has a huge negative impact on our mental health. Having an excuse to go and hang out with others regularly, check in how we are and discuss weekly topics under the guise that we are all only there to get fit, is an essential part of my self-care and wellbeing.

September – A Month of Transition.

I noticed how the long-awaited relief of children returning to school was entwined with a feeling of loss and sadness this week. My mood dipped and I started to recognise this feeling as a familiar tone that sets in year after year in September. The sea suddenly becomes less inviting, I notice the evenings start to draw in and that abundant energy I had in June and July is no longer present. As the leaves start to fall from the trees and the seasons change, so do I.  The familiar feeling is one of grief.

As a child I was sent to Boarding School, so each September my trunk would be packed and off I would go, leaving behind my mum, my cat, my house, my bedroom and have to quickly make the transition to being one of 30 girls sleeping in an open dormitory. There was no space for grief and transition then as I had to adapt quickly with a brisk goodbye at the door to my mum and a goodbye to the summer holidays and the time I had spent outside of this institution.  As an adult I have always viewed September as a new beginning and am able to see how I have developed a pattern of often shedding jobs and relationships in the summer months, preparing for this new term to start. 

However, these days those feelings of grief show up and I am no longer able to push forward as I have in the past.  This has shown up in a cough in recent Autumns that I have struggled to shift.  As a child in that first year at Boarding School I developed Asthma out of the blue. Many of us associate sadness and grief with the heart, but In Chinese Medicine your lungs are seen as a repository for these emotions. We have all encountered so much grief in the past six months.  We may have individually experienced the physical loss of a loved one, we may have lost the job we cherished, the financial security we had, our space away from our children, our routine, our holidays, physical touch and our freedom of movement.  We have all collectively experienced the loss of the lifestyle that we once knew. The ground that once felt solid beneath our feet is now like sand as we move into Autumn uncertain whether another Lockdown is on the horizon and we are still unable to plan for the future.

 So, as the leaves have started to fall this week, and my energy levels started to droop, I have stopped in my rush to push forward and decided to be kind to myself.  To give my body and my mind what it is asking for.  Nourishing food, warm baths, and plenty of rest.  I have started giving myself a massage each evening before bed with Bergamot aromatherapy oil, known for its mood balancing and uplifting properties. So often our minds can race ahead of our bodies with all these intentions and plans, and our bodies then crash with burn out / depression or a physical ailment that causes us to stop.  Hopefully this year, I have spotted the signs early on and have started to slow down into Autumn and give my body and mind what it really needs and deserves. We are unable to fully go forwards and transition unless we make space to let go of our grief. We have all had to adapt so much these past six months and we are incredibly resilient to have done so, so make sure going into Autumn you give yourself the nurture that you need and deserve.

“The Privilege of Boarding School…”

“The dreadful handover on that first day at school found me walking down a long corridor with great distrust, as each step took me closer to the inevitable saying goodbye. I was 10 years old. A formidable woman met us, and a smaller rather timid woman stood by her side. I did not take to them or them to me. As I stepped over the threshold I knew deep inside me that this was not going to be a good experience.  I was right, it was something to get through, something to be endured. The feeling was one of going inside from the light into the dark, of leaving all I knew and that was familiar. As I stepped into the dark everything closed in on me and I left most of myself, if not all, outside.  It has taken years of therapy and support from family and friends for me to find myself again.” (annonymous).

What is Boarding School Syndrome?

Boarding School Syndrome is not a medical category, but a proposal that there is an identifiable cluster of learned behaviours and emotional states that may follow growing up in boarding school, which can lead to serious psychological distress.

These can include:

  • Depression
  • Difficulties in forming relationships.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Hyper-vigilence.
  • Low self-esteem and confidence.
  • Low levels of self-care.
  • Burn Out.
  • Trauma.
  • A Strategic Personality Adaptation.

What are the psychological events that may lead to Boarding School Syndrome?


Attending boarding school is a unique and alternative upbringing which impacts heavily on long-term development. Understanding the nuances of boarding school experience is important for understanding where many symptoms stem from.

Hidden Trauma

The lasting effects of early boarding is a hidden trauma. A young child sent away from home to live with strangers, and in the process loses their attachment figures and their home. They’re exposed to prolonged separation. They may experience bullying and loss. This combination leads to unbearable emotional stress. A young child does not have the mental capacity for creating a coherent narrative out of these events on their own, as they are unable to process it. This trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion physiological symptoms and a large number of psychological symptoms.

Bereavement

The term ‘homesickness’ does not do justice to the depth of losses to which the boarding school child is subjected. The broken attachments of the first days in boarding school amount to a significant, but unrecognised form of bereavement and the child must learn to live without love.

For the child, their losses are minimised and glossed over as insignificant. This contributes to the hidden aspect of the trauma. The term ‘homesickness’ encompasses a complex systems of unprocessed grief and many children are emotionally wounded (traumatised), exiled (homeless) and bereaved (grieving). Suddenly, children are abandoned and have to adapt to the abrupt and irrevocable loss of the childhood state. Children lose their role – their sense of themselves as people who belong in a family group and have to prematurely appear grown up. It is not uncommon for the repressed distress to come out in symptoms such as bed wetting and vomiting as tears are not permitted.

The child may feel a sense of homelessness. The repeated experience of returning home as a stranger and then leaving, just as the child has settled back in, builds a psychological pattern – an expectation of being left which is often unconsciously active in later life. These patterns of disrupted attachments are often replayed within a long-term partnership. This can also cause a psychological split between the boarding school self and the home self.

If the child is unhappy but is given the message that the school is good for her and a privilege, then they feel they have no right to complain and this can lead the child to doubt her or his own perception. Although the child may conform, the confusion will likely remain, causing a second psychological split between the feeling self and the thinking self.

Another loss is the dependent state of childhood and thus the premature death of the child self. This can never be regained because when the child returns home she or he is inevitably changed, no longer trusting but watchful and alert for rejection. Once a child realises her parents are not returning, an encapsulation of self occurs and a protective shell is formed. Deep within the armoured self is the hidden vulnerable child who trusts no one. Overwhelmed with many physical manifestations of grief, something has to happen psychologically for the child to survive, and children have to learn to live cut off from their internal emotional turmoil.

Captivity

The child is captive, living in a situation not of his own choosing and which he is helpless to change and thus is undergoing another hidden trauma. Living without traditional family markers of the passing of time, such as birthdays, means that when an ex-boarder tells his tale it may lack narrative flow.

In the case of imprisonment, there is an absence of loving relationships. There is also no one with whom she feels she can be appropriately angry. Without the outlet for expression, the child may turn that anger inwards. An unconscious form of splitting may occur, whereby in order to keep the parents happy, the child has to do violence to his own psyche.

Ex-boarders often seek therapy for general depression, relationship difficulties, and a sense of emotional numbness, which may manifest from not living their own lives. Even experienced therapists may miss the depth of the wound inflicted by broken attachments and the emotional neglect suffered when the child is sent to boarding school. As a result of society viewing Boarding Schools as a privileged upbringing, the ex-boarder themselves may be carrying shame from having had what others perceive as a privileged start and this can prevent them from acknowledging their distress. Their symptoms are often hidden behind a brittle facade of competence and such adults can find it difficult to ask for help.

Symptoms and what to be aware of when working therapeutically with ex-boarders.

As children, ex-boarders were unable to tell their parents of their suffering and thus as adults they may disregard their own suffering. This may replay in therapy as they may not expect the therapist to take their story seriously. They may recount it, omitting the emotional impact and gloss over their suffering with a well-rehearsed joke. It can often be difficult for the adult to recognise that the treatment they received was wrong, as a child usually assumes her experience to be the norm, especially when it is shared with others who are in similar circumstances.

The ex-boarder may appear socially confident, but may have a deep and permanent lack of trust in loving relationships as a lasting repercussion to the repetition of loss. It can replay in adult relationships, and manifests in anticipation of rejection and fear of abandonment by later attachment figures. This may lead to emotional withdrawal and as an adult they may, against their own desires and emotional needs, prematurely cut off from intimate relationships. This may replay as psychotherapy becomes important, and it may lead to sudden termination of the therapeutic relationship when the rage associated with dependency begins to surface.


With ex-boarders, the breaks in psychotherapy have little impact at first. The regular pattern of school holidays followed by the return to school arms the ex-boarder with a mechanism for coping with disrupted attachments. However, after a few breaks, they may need to stop, believing they are better working things out alone as dependency seems too much.


Boarding school may also lead to the creation of strong sibling groups. The bonding in sibling groups compensates for the loss of family and the significance of the sibling group continues into adult life as a sense of belonging is maintained. The powerlessness that children at first experience in relation to the rules may create a sibling bond and may also produce people who conform. This prepares them well to follow a career in the military, law or some highly formalised institution.

Ex-female boarders have an ability to get in with people of all classes and help others feel at ease. However, as their suffering is masked, the therapist may have to resist reciprocating the friendliness in order to take seriously the perceived suffering hidden behind the social presentation. Women may also show up symptoms of shame, as they were often punished with shame and humiliation as opposed to the physical beatings in many boys schools.

The behaviour of adults in positions of trust is a common theme in the psychotherapy of ex-boarders. They can often be very wary of authority figures.  As adults they can tell of the beatings and sexual abuse to which, as children, they were subjected. Often at the time they were unable to tell of this abuse, as a result of broken attachments with parents and the behaviour normalised within the school. The culture of the boarding school may include practices and traditions where the violation of personal privacy and boundaries may be the norm. Paedophiles have often chosen to operate in boarding schools where it is easier to isolate and abuse children.   In recent years, there has been more public and media attention devoted to the exposure of these occurrences in schools and finally the children are getting their stories heard. Thus in psychotherapy with ex-boarders one of the most important tasks is witnessing and then putting into words feelings that are being expressed

The dissociation from feelings is much more readily accomplishable when they can be located within someone else. As a therapist you have to be aware of the possible projective identification, as often the disowned feeling states turn up in their partner or in yourself as a therapist.  By having a vulnerable seeming partner, a dissociating ex boarder can continue to fill the place created by loss and maintain the identity of not being the one who is vulnerable.

The child who is sent to boarding school at an early age is still active in some of the adults who come for therapy… This aspect of the personality is often in stark contrast to the highly articulate persona of the initial presentation. The armoured personality and encapsulated emotional self becomes a way of being and influences the way ex-boarders may interact as adults.  As a child, the ex-boarder split off parts of his vulnerable self in order to survive, and the adult may show signs of amnesia and an inability to get in touch with their feelings. Ex-boarders may show symptoms of dissociation and it may manifest as a sense of feeling permanently distant from the world which is a recognised symptom of PTSD.  Therefore an approach that attends to bodily symptoms and links the person to their body experiences may help. The ex-boarder may need to learn that it is safe to have feelings.

The task of the therapist is a combination of bearing the pain with the client and witnessing, as well as attempting to give words to the difficult and sometimes very painful feeling states that emerge in the process. The strong attachment to the parents that the child has to sever is transferred to the survival personality itself.  This makes therapy with ex boarders challenging as the client may feel that the therapist wants to take away the one constant that has been there throughout her life.  Their very own survival personality.

A goal of therapy is to enable the ex-boarder to move from survival to living.

We Love the NHS…..

Over the last week I have started to notice a slight feeling of distaste growing inside me each time I see another pop concert being offered to NHS workers. Offers of adoration and praise have been coming in thick and fast as these frontline workers are being compared to the soldiers going over the battlefields in the war, putting their lives at risk for us.  How this is enabling us to come together as a nation, to feel patriotic and clap on the streets and bang our saucepans and wave to our neighbors whom we have been ignoring up until now. We are even all looking forward to our post Pandemic street parties.

 I salute and applause all the doctors, nurses and key workers who are all putting their lives at risk performing their jobs, so why am I feeling this way?

This morning, after a session with a client, I made the connection. I am noticing a similar pattern with that of abuse.

The NHS has been struggling and on its last legs for years. Staff have been working ridiculously long work shifts, with very little support for their own mental health and partly because they are told they are heroes and angels, they keep going.  These people are wonderful and without their dedication, endurance and huge hearts, many more of us would be unwell and die. Before any of this started.

So, we tell them how “special” they are.  What an amazing wonderful job they are doing.  What incredible people they are. We lavish praise on them at this time like never before.  This is a known tactic of grooming and exploitation.  Abusers tell their victims how special they are, how much they love them and this boost to their self -esteem often prevents victims speaking out about their abuse and challenging it.  It silences them.

What would happen if all these people put their energy into petitioning the government to get the staff proper equipment and support, rather than delivering them gifts of smoothies or painting rainbows on their faces? How about we vote for a government that supports the NHS.  It’s the changes to their working conditions that are fundamentally needed, as opposed to offers of love and saucepan banging. 

The solidarity on the streets at 8pm on Thursday and the coming together as a community is a wonderful thing, but let’s not fool ourselves that we are doing it solely altruistically for the NHS.

A Community Witnessing of Grief.

“There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit.” Sobonfu Some

Leaving the revelry of Pride behind this Saturday, I took myself off to the beautiful space at the Ecotherapy Centre at Stamner Park to take part with others in a Community Grief Tending ritual. I had little knowledge of what to expect, but soon learned that we were to spend the day – a group of 10 of us, connecting, sharing our stories if we wished and experiencing and expressing our grief amongst each other. So often many of us experience the heart wrenching deep pain of grief alone. For a few days after someone has died, friends pay us visits or check if we are ok, but as the days turn to weeks and the weeks into months, the grief seeps deeper inside us and we can often worry that our feelings of despair, loneliness or anger may not be welcomed by friends. We numb ourselves with alcohol, food – or whatever is at our disposal in an attempt to cover up these feelings and distract us from them. But they don’t go away. The plaster gets wet, worn round the edges and falls off, revealing the deep wound that is still in so very much in need of healing.

In other cultures, such as the Dagara tribe of West Africa, grief is communal and they partake in weekly grief rituals where the community come together to support and witness each other in their grief. This enables those grieving to be able to process and release their grief. Very opposite to our own culture where so much grieving is done behind closed doors, with people feeling ashamed of their emotions, feeling there is something wrong with them for not being “over it” and friends too afraid to ask how they are in case they “upset them.”

The day flowed as we moved across the land creating an altar of gratitude and an altar for those ancestors whom we wished to honour, remember and share with each other. A fire was lit as we gathered around it to feast on the wonderful nourishing food we had all brought to share with one another. The main part of the day was the ritual itself in which those who wished to, were invited to handle objects which represented fear, sorrow, anger and numbness. As each member held the various objects, they shared and released some of their pain and feelings, which were witnessed by each other in an environment that felt safe and holding. There was no judgement, other than for ourselves, and people were able to unlock some of their deeply held grief and express it in front of each other. For some, this took the form of words, for others with tears or anger. I was struck by the courage of every participant to take that risk to show their pain and express that part of themselves which at times can feel so unwelcome in our society. For some the grief was so far hidden they shared their frustration at not being able to access it, knowing it was there bubbling underneath the surface. There was something incredibly powerful about having our grief witnessed and feeling that connection with others. I left that day feeling full of gratitude for the connections I had made and the opportunity to express my own grief and feel seen and heard.

Our society has become so much about the individual, but we need each other. We need communities. We need to come together. We need to be witnessed and held and know that we are okay, however we are feeling that day. We need to know that Grief is a natural process and a journey that will continue to affect us all throughout our lives in one way or another. Yes, it is hard and yes, it is painful and heart wrenching at times and can take us to the pits of despair and isolation. However, if we can reach out, support each other, and accept that this is a consequence of loving and living in this world, then we can make the process of grieving that little bit more bearable for us all.