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The Trauma of Boarding School

By Susanna Hoare

Our basic needs are for love, recognition and acceptance. Arrival at boarding school shocks our system as we learn to adapt to being away from the familiarity of home and what that means. Being in a strange environment away from the familiar sounds, smells, and well-known family rituals which provide a sense of security about who we are and our place in the world is frightening. Being separated from our families connects us with feelings of loss. All too often these feelings are powerful and overwhelming as we connect with missing our family, our siblings, our pets and our home. Remembering the first goodbye and the response our parents had towards us and our own response to them as the realisation begins to sink in that there is no going back. We struggle to make sense of our feelings of rejection and abandonment as we begin to take in what this means. Our response to being placed in a strange environment will be coloured by both our own reaction to separation as well as our parents response to us in our goodbye. Our parents response to us the initial goodbye may have been acknowledging our feelings or avoiding our feelings or stepping aside from their own feelings. Goodbyes connect us with separation and endings as well as possible rejection and abandonment.

We have to learn to adapt and survive in an institution where there is no room for our basic needs to be met. Love, affection, warmth, kindness, compassion are missing. We learn quickly that showing some emotions such as sadness, hurt, fear are not welcome or responded to with kindness and sensitivity, instead when these feelings are shown they are minimised, ridiculed, ignored or denied. We learn that some behaviours are actively encouraged typically those that accompany community living such as conformity, compliance, obedience.

Being sent to boarding school results in our learning to defend ourselves in order to protect the vulnerable self inside our bodies. This covering over of ourselves, our innermost feelings means we lose connection with ourselves and we do not who we are or how we feel. We shut down inside so that we no longer feel since feeling is connected with pain. Our sense of self gets defined by achievement, the things we do or the places we have been. Being good at doing things is valued more than being in relationship.

Some of the messages we learn include

Try harder, who was the best, being the best, scoring the most, getting the highest marks, having the best things, holidays, possessions. Where is the emotional connection? Competition is encouraged and people are pitted against each other and in this process the uniqueness of each individual and their qualities, their ability to befriend themselves, their compassion towards themselves is gradually obscured and covered as defences are developed and solidified to keep others out. Competition is often seen as character building however there are other less desirable aspects to this that foster more painful forms of defences such as self criticism for being a disappointment or failure if we do not reach the ideal standard or blame where we berate ourselves for falling short or not being good enough.

Some of the adaptations developed to prevent us from feeling

  • Stiff upper lip, don’t show feelings
  • Self sufficiency, don’t let others in
  • Hide behind charm, that way you can get your own way
  • Keep busy to stop yourself from feeling anything whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  • Don’t dare to hope in case you’re let down
  • Have a brave face, keep smiling no matter what
  • Don’t think.
  • Hide behind humour as it takes away the sting of the underlying feeling
  • Stop trusting as no-one can be depended upon
  • Guilt
  • Don’t need because no-one is there to provide support
  • Don’t ask for help as no-one will listen
  • Don’t fail as you will be a disappointment
  • Stay alert you never know who might hurt you

The next step

Be open to reviewing the impact of separation and loss and the subtleties of the ways of relating that you have formed. Acknowledge the grief and loss for what has happened. Is now the time to start the journey of change?