The Boarding School Syndrome – Part II

Part II

I want to discuss briefly about what the Boarding School Syndrome is in this part but I want to highlight the fact that I’m not a mental health expert and have no experience in this other than the fact that I attended a Boarding School from the age of 10 years to 16 years. When I was reading through the articles, and the signs and symptoms of this syndrome, I felt there were a lot of things that I could relate to. In the next part of this series, I’ll share more about my own personal experiences and the insights I’ve gained recently into some of my own behavioural patterns.

The term boarding school syndrome was coined by psychotherapist Joy Schaverien in 2011.1 Although it is not a medical diagnosis, it is being increasingly recognized as a specific syndrome by psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors. It has been proposed that people who’ve grown up in boarding schools show a set of learned behaviours and emotional states which can lead to serious psychological distress and many adults may suffer from long-term emotional and behavioural difficulties. 2, 3

  • The symptoms of this syndrome are varied and complex. Early boarders usually present with –
    • Depression
    • Anxiety Disorders (esp separation anxiety, fear of abandonment etc)
    • Eating Disorders
    • Low self-esteem and a sense of failure (even in those who are high performers)
    • May come across as confident but usually have a lot of self-doubt
    • Substance abuse
    • Obsessive behaviour
    • Workaholism
    • Sleep problems
    • Problematic interpersonal relationships, etc
  • Some children may have faced bullying or sexual abuse.

Society labels those who attend Boarding Schools as privileged. Because of this social messaging, many boarding school children view themselves as privileged. But the separation from family and primary attachments is a REAL trauma for any child, irrespective of the tag of being privileged. If you remove the cloak of privilege, children attending boarding schools are inflicted with similar traumas as a child who’s been abandoned. Although parents reassure the child that the reason for being sent away is because they are loved, for a very young child, it may not feel that way.

I know for certain that in my darkest hours, I’ve had questions about why I was sent away, as recently as a few days back. Was it because I was too naughty? Was it because I dragged my brother to play cricket with me instead of concentrating on homework? I’ve had many questions, although my rational mind knew that it was because my parents wanted me to have the best of education. In fact, this is the first time I’m admitting to having had such insecurities in writing. And a couple of days back, for the first time in my life, I asked my mom why my parents sent me away. I asked her the actual questions that plagued me on my low days. For the first time in my life I voiced these thoughts. Questions I would put a lid on as soon as they surfaced, scold myself for even having such thoughts because I KNOW why I was sent to a boarding school.

Many children attending a boarding school feel that they do not have the right to express their feelings or to feel traumatized because it is supposed to be a privilege to attend a boarding school, which can cause a conflict between what the child feels and what the child has been told, which can lead the child to doubt his/her own perception. Although the child learns to conform, a psychological split may occur between the feeling self and the thinking self. 3 Can being away from loved ones at so tender an age really be considered a privilege?

When I read about this psychological split, it helped me understand myself to a great deal. I hadn’t read about this split before nor did I know about the “feeling self” and the “thinking self”. But I know now that I have this split. I had my own terms for them as well. I referred to them as my “rational self” (the thinking self) and the “irrational self” (the feeling self). I know that in most cases, my rational self takes over my irrational self. But there are a few instances when my irrational self, ie my feeling self, becomes stronger than my other self. This happens usually when I’m attached to someone emotionally. Since I am not used to listening to my “feeling self”, always disregarding it as my “irrational self” I tend to make bad judgements, take poor decisions whenever my feeling self becomes dominant. At least, that is my interpretation (and in no way a professional assessment) of this. I’m in therapy now and this is definitely something I will bring up with my therapist.

All the articles I read were regarding experiences of adults who are ex-Boarding School kids from England. There is a (not so) surprising lack of data on the effect of Boarding School on those who’ve attended Boarding Schools in India although we have quite a few of them, and many parents who aspire to educate their kids in Boarding Schools. I think it is extremely important for such data to be available so that parents can make informed decisions.

I do not mean to say Boarding Schools are bad. In my first post I’ve mentioned how I’ve always felt privileged and all the things that I have learnt. But like everything else, there are pros and cons to these schools as well. I think the age at which a child is sent to a school that will completely transform his/her life is very important to bear in mind when making such decisions.

If you are interested in knowing more about this syndrome, here is an article from the British Journal of Psychotherapy that you might find useful → Click here

Read Part I here

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