Author Joy Schaverien discusses her new book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child. Published in June 2015 it is already a Routledge best seller and was number one bestseller on Amazon in psychoanalytic theory in July.
Boarding School Syndrome is a detailed analysis of the enduring psychological impact of boarding schools on adults who, as children who grew up in them. It is an attempt to begin to develop a theory for this particular trauma and an approach to treating it.
In British Society we take for granted that a proportion of children attend boarding schools but rarely do we notice the tremendous heart break associated with it. Like children taken into care of the local authority those in boarding school suffer the loss of all that is familiar; the difference is that their parents pay for the ‘privilege’. A high percentage of my patients had been to boarding school. It was similar with those of my colleagues. It would often be mentioned in passing in case discussions and yet it was rare that this was identified as a major cause of the presenting problem in adults seeking psychotherapy. It seemed to me that we were missing something. Ex-boarders commonly present with generalised depression, relationship breakdown, and problems with intimacy or with parenting their children. In analysis it is not always immediately evident that the origins of this unhappiness may be traced to the traumatic early separation from home and loved ones when they were sent to boarding school. I came to realise that this form of enduring wounding needed to be considered in a new way. I decided to conduct interviews with other ex-boarders; these were not my patients. The deeper I inquired into it the more facets of this trauma emerged.
So it was my clinical practice as a Jungian analyst that led me to observe that a number of my patients and those of my colleagues were troubled by their experiences of being sent to boarding school at 7 or 8 years of age. When I asked my clients if they remembered their first day at boarding school I was at first surprised by the traumatic memories that that single question revealed. Over time I observed that there appeared to be a pattern that manifested in these adult patients. It emerged that the broken attachments had caused a split in the personality between the armoured boarding school child (self) and the sensitive, vulnerable, home-child (self). It became clear that these children had suffered significant bereavements and moreover boarding school was a form of imprisonment. This analogy is not new; many well known ex-boarders have made this comment in passing and jokingly. I decided to consider this seriously and realised that boarding school could be just that; a prison, where children were held against their will until released on parole: the holidays.
The book is illustrated with vivid case vignettes. The story of ‘Theo’ is particularly compelling. The pictures he made as part of the analytic process illustrate three chapters of the book. Despite all that he suffered in the school the worst of all, for him was the realisation that his mother could leave him. Even as a child he was incredulous that a mother could just leave her child; it was as if this was a taboo – he said ‘this just does not happen’. But of course for him and others like him it did.
One common misconception is that people often consider that I am against all boarding schools; this is not the case. I do think early boarding between 6 and 13 is not good for most children. However there are cases when boarding is necessary and preferable to home life. Some older children do very well at boarding school but not all. Children of 15 or 16 are often able to make their preference known and may relish the opportunity for music or sport and living in an environment with their peers.
The main intended readership for the book is professionals: analytical psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, counsellors and arts therapists. However it is also written for ex-boarders and many, who are not psychotherapists have read the book and tell me they have found it helpful in understanding their own experiences. Therefore I now envisage three main categories of reader and each will take something slightly different from the book:
- I hope that analysts and psychotherapy professionals will read the book and be alerted to the potential depth of suffering that may lie behind the casual comment that the client attended boarding school. This is especially the case when they went at 7 or 8 years of age. The detailed analysis in the book, of aspects of the trauma may help in this.
- Ex-boarders: Adults, who as children attended prep boarding schools, will be helped to understand their own suffering. It might be beneficial to realise that they are not alone; others too were deeply upset by their experience of early boarding caused by the rupture with home and the loss of intimate attachment figures.
- Parents and teachers: I would like these adults to listen to present day children and to believe them when they say they are unhappy or do not want to return to school after the holidays. When a child says that a teacher is inappropriate or that an older child is frightening them to consider what action might be taken. The main message for parents and teachers is: listen to children and believe them.
The Society of Analytical Psychology is hosting a morning symposium in London on 28th November 2015:
Other events are:
Cambridgeshire Consultancy in Counselling on the 17th October 2015: