Boarding School Syndrome and Attachment Theory

It used to be the view that going through a tough boarding school education was character-building. Now we are more considered about the longer-term impact of separation and of the professional care that children receive.

What is Boarding School Syndrome?

Boarding School Syndrome describes disorganised patterns of emotional attachment that are (for some people), a consequence of the disruption of being sent away to boarding school. It describes the effects of the hidden traumas that are part of a boarding school education. Something that complicates this experience is: that the fact of being sent away to school was, and perhaps still is, seen as a privilege. In other words, the pupil has the sense that they should feel grateful, when in fact they may feel disturbed by the experience.

Left unchecked, later in life emotional relationships can suffer, and relationships can break down, leading to:

  • alienation
  • depression
  • drinking and
  • other addictive and destructive habits

Attachment Theory and the Long Term Effects of Separation in Childhood

Someone who has been through a difficult experience of boarding school may become avoidant and struggle to express their emotions. This experience can be understood within the framework of attachment theory.

Though many people might choose to go to boarding school and might flourish there, for a great number of people the experience of being separated from home coupled with the sense of isolation at school can leave an indelible mark. Common outcomes include depression, difficulties with forming relationships, and emotional numbness. It is the prolonged separation, the loss of early attachment figures, sometimes plus the experience of bullying, that leaves a powerful mark on the psyche and developing personality of the person.

In my book, Boarding School Syndrome, I outlined a series of traumas experienced by children sent away at a young age. These are the ABCD of boarding school syndrome: abandonment, bereavement, captivity and the resulting disassociation.

Joy Schaverien

The trauma of being sent away can all too easily remain hidden

Their emotional centre has been dysregulated and from this a certain emotional instability arises. This can become masked by a tough outward exterior, a kind of persona or front. The individual might be seen as aloof, and this can make it difficult to engage with the emotional distress that resides within.

Furthermore, in later life, the feeling that you were put out of your home before you were ready for it can sow seeds that leave individuals anxious and insecure in future dating relationships. They may be quick to feel that they are in danger of being overlooked, a lot of problems with jealousy can stem from this, later it is these problems that get projected into our love relationships.

Shame and Boarding School Experience

When people, especially boys have had the sense of failing to bond with peer groups, coupled with the sense of being sent away from home a degree of shame forms at a deep emotional level.

  • loss of attachment figures
  • prolonged separation
  • sustained stress
  • bullying
  • loss

If it is possible to find a way to engage with the emotionally inhibited or damaged part of the personality then the consequences might be contained, and the level of emotional inhibition reduced.

When there have been injuries or traumas that have been buried deep in the personality it becomes hard to develop trust and the individual may be tempted to fall back on what looks like emotional aloofness. In later life, being emotionally open or intimate may be a step too far.

Homesickness and Boarding School Syndrome

Euphemistically we speak of the unhappy child as going through homesickness, and historically, boarding school and the attendant emotional problems were seen as a kind of right of passage, rather than as serious attachment issues that might blight an individual. An emotional split can occur that can be easy to miss and which in the long term can leave a deep sense of failure.

Recognising Boarding School Syndrome

As the syndrome becomes recognised it becomes possible to start to talk about it in a serious way.  This can help break the habitual alienating lifestyle choices and lead to improved quality of life. Boarding School syndrome is a term coined by Jungian analyst Joy Schaverien before her it was written about by Nick Duffell.

boarding school syndrome counselling

What clients say about Boarding School Syndrome

“I’ve never heard of boarding school syndrome… but I’ve probably got it”, says a client I will call Jack.

Jack came to see me when he was in his early 50s.  He explained “I was sent away to school when I was nine. Nothing had prepared me for it.  My father had just got a new job overseas.  I did not know what had hit me.  At first it was exciting but then I felt really homesick.  My sister who was a few years younger than me stayed with my parents and this made me feel very unhappy, I couldn’t see why they had taken her and not me.  That left a bit of a problem between me and my sister, she has been married a long time, has two children, her life seems to have been much simpler than mine.  I think I have always struggled with rejection since then.  I have struggled with relationships.  I find it hard to be close with women. I did have a marriage, but it didn’t work out very well, it was a struggle. I have one son from that marriage and it’s been very difficult for us to be close. I think boarding school left me feeling very alone and alienated.”

Jack tells me that at school he didn’t do very well.  He thinks the other boys knew he was a bit lonely and isolated and he got picked on and bullied for being overweight.  Jack says that boarding school left him with a few demons.  He stayed there until he was 16 and left after his O-levels which didn’t go very well.

Working with Boarding School Syndrome in psychotherapy

Jack found it quite difficult to settle into counselling sessions, gradually he built up trust in the process and in working with me.  He came because he had met someone that he wanted to have a relationship with and knew that if he didn’t get some support it would probably fail. He had always struggled to form reliable attachments.

Working with me

Psychotherapy can provide an opportunity to develop a confidential space in which these painful emotional experiences can be thought about and discussed.

If someone has been through a sustained sense of feeling abandoned by their family and then having the experience of failing at a boarding school, it is likely that certain marks will be left on the personality. But it is possible to learn to live with these things better.

It may be that instead of feeling that the emotional injuries have to be hidden, that they can be approached sensitively.

I have experience of working with people suffering from boarding school syndrome.  Please contact me for a free telephone consultation to find out how Counselling Buckinghamshire might be able to help you.

Contact me to arrange a free conversation to discuss your concerns.

I have twenty years experience of working with people who, for whatever reason, may have developed attachment issues and so had problems developing and maturing.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting is helpful, it may be the beginning of starting to develop greater insight into yourself and your situation. 

  • It may provide you with the chance to be better able to understand your attachment issues.
  • This may help you to develop and to create better and more satisfying emotional relationships.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.


Toby Ingham