Boarding school syndrome: in conversation with joy schaverien

In her book ‘Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the “Privileged” Child‘ Joy Schaverien identified a cluster of symptoms and behaviours, which she classified as ‘Boarding School Syndrome’. The premise is that children sent to boarding school at an early age suffer the sudden and irrevocable loss of their primary attachments and this constitutes a significant trauma. The children are also unsafe because, in some schools, they are at the mercy of bullies and sexual predators.

To adapt to the system, a defensive and protective encapsulation of the self may be acquired; the true identity of the person then remains hidden. This pattern may continue into adult life, distorting intimate relationships. In psychotherapy the transference dynamics may replay the hidden childhood trauma of repeated losses. Based on additional clinical material the talk will draw attention to the ways in which this syndrome may present in psychotherapy. It will give a sense of the depth of trauma, including sexual abuse, which is often missed when a patient mentions they attended a boarding school.

the transcript

Joanna: Hello, my name is Joanna de Waal and it gives me great pleasure to be sitting here with Joy Schaverien who is the author of the book boarding school syndrome and she is here to have a chat with me and give a taster of a talk she’s going to be giving later in the year, in Oxford, that I will be chairing. So welcome Joy.

Joy: Thank you very much Joanna, and I’m very pleased to be here. 

Joanna: So the boarding school syndrome is a term that you actually coined and it does have huge clinical, social and political implications currently as well as for many centuries before. Perhaps you could say a little bit about what you understand the boarding syndrome to be. 

Joy: Yes, I came to develop that term because first of all I noticed with my clients a number of them were telling me they’d been to boarding school and like. They’d mention it in passing like with any other school.

Then I realised, that with those particular people, when they told me they’d been to boarding school, actually it was a very serious thing. And that a lot of them were really traumatised but they were quite unaware of it. 

They suffered. Very often people come with relationship problems. Difficulties in parenting their children that occur quite late in their lives, so they don’t immediately notice that boarding school has had an impact on them. And many clients come with other presenting problems and do not realise that boarding school is the foundation really of the disturbance that they bring. 

Joanna: And that is connected to a sort of state of dissociation that they have to get into in order to survive at boarding school. 

Joy: I think that’s right. I mean I came up with four categories; the ABCD of boarding school syndrome. They are the aspects of the trauma of being separated from their parents, of being sent away to boarding school. They’re abandoned at an early age, they are exiled from home. So that’s abandonment, that’s the A. The B is bereavement, what we call homesickness normally, passed over as just “you’re just a bit homesick you’ll get over it”, and what is actually a major bereavement. When children are sent to boarding school they lose everything. They lose their family, their parents, their siblings, their pets, their home, the food they’re used to eating, the environment they’re used to being in, the bed they sleep in and suddenly they are amongst strangers, completely alienated and they have to just get on with it because there is nothing else to do. But actually what they’re doing is going through a process of grief and mourning. And this is repeated every time they go home and then go back to school, the trauma is repeated. 

Joanna: So they don’t ever really get a chance to properly bereave, be bereaved and properly mourn? Because they have to re-do it every term?

Joy: I think that’s right. So it re-traumatises them each time, so it’s an ongoing trauma. And children who have been through that very often go back home. They’ve been to boarding school. One of the things I always ask people these days is “what do you remember of the first day you went to boarding school?”. And people either remember it vividly or else they can’t recall it at all. And that is because it is traumatic. People remember being there, the shock of being left. Children go to prep school at seven or eight years old and if you think how young a child of seven or eight years old is; most of us have children or grandchildren, people we know of that age, and if you look at them and you imagine what that’s like – to go to boarding school, to leave your home and everything you know, and have no one who loves you, to look after you… It’s major, it’s a major trauma. 

Joanna: And you do make a quite a big distinction between the prep schools and the schools that take on older adolescents, adolescents really. 

Joy: I make a distinction, I don’t think it’s better, it’s just different. 

I think the major abandonment is not quite so traumatic for some older children, children who go to public school at 13 or to a senior boarding school are better able to cope with it than the little children. But I’ve met an awful lot of people, some of them still at school, who are not really able to process what’s happened to them. Because one of the things that parents do for their children, part of the thing that we do with love, is that we explain feelings to a child. To a young child who is anxious or say “I’ve got a tummy ache” the parent will say “Well perhaps this is because you are feeling anxious” and “You don’t want to go to school because you’ve got a tummy ache because something has happened at school, what’s happening?”. So a tuned parent will do that, and that comes from love. In a boarding school no matter how good they are (and they are better these days) there is counselling, but children are jollied along and told “Yes, it’s alright, you’ll be alright in a couple of days”. And they aren’t alright in a couple of days because something has changed in their lives fundamentally whether they are 13 or whether they are seven or eight. Or younger. I’ve got patients who went younger than that. 

Joanna: That’s very young, isn’t it?

Joy: Four, five. 

Joanna: So that’s A and B. So C?

Joy: C is captivity. Children at boarding school are captive, they are not allowed to leave. It’s like a prison. In the sense that they have to wear a uniform. Their not allowed to leave without the permission of the adults. They are let out on parole sometimes. They call it exeats or at half term or when they go home at the end of term. But they go back to prison again and that’s the shock for many of them. The first term they think “Well you know this is really bad but my parents are coming” and so and so. The parents come but they take them back again. And many young children can’t really get their heads round that. 

Joanna: Well that does lead on to questions that I think many people do, will have in their heads, especially if the parents themselves have gone to boarding school (and it does often seem to be the case) which is how is it that a parent who might well have had a really traumatic experience themselves will then pass that on and send their own children to a boarding school?

Joy: It’s really strange that isn’t it? You would think they wouldn’t do it but actually in many families it’s a tradition. And many fathers especially have the attitude that: “Well it never did me any harm so, you know it will make a man of him or her”. It makes man of women too. So what they learn to do is disassociate. Children learn that at school very young. You know no one is going to come when you cry so you cry under the covers, maybe someone [will come] – nowadays they have counsellors in schools and they are kinder. But they are still not the right people that come. And so the child learns not to attend to their feelings and this has wider implications. This has political implications because many people who govern the country in Britain went to these schools as children. They went to prep school they then went on to Eton or one of the big public schools and they then usually go off to one of the major universities.

So they are in this system all the way through and one of the things they learn as little children is to disassociate, they learn that because their feelings are not accounted for and if they show emotion they get bullied for it. The stronger children bully the weaker children because they show vulnerability and the child, the bully, the child that becomes the bully or the child that’s controlling that child doesn’t want to see their own vulnerability reflected in somebody else. And so I think that has implications for society where such people govern the society and make policies about people who are less privileged than themselves. So I think it has wide implications.  

Joanna: You made a comment about even the girls [attending] boarding schools become men. Can you unpack that a bit?

Joy: Yes, I think the system is a masculine system. Today maybe it’s rather different but girls were sent to boarding schools in order to become the mothers of the next generation of men. And the system is very hard and very male. And women’s bodies are, even in girls schools, really rather taboo. They are frightening because girls could get pregnant if they escape so they have to be really kept under control. They do things like they have periods and have breasts that develop, all of this is kind of chaotic and out of control. And it is not valued in the system which is kind of rigid, and kind of based on a tradition that was established originally for men. 

Joanna: You mean the sense of one’s blossoming body is not valued?

Joy: Exactly, it’s not celebrated. 

Joanna: And would that also be true in the boys boarding schools?

Joy: Absolutely, and I think one of the things about the older children going to school is that their sexuality is not valued. And so their experiments, their learning of sexuality is distorted really. They are not in a loving environment where their beginnings of sexuality can be accepted, can be valued and can be delighted in. They are in a place where sexuality gets abused and distorted.

Joanna: Clearly being at boarding school is and can be an extraordinarily traumatic experience that is held out of mind by many people, however, I imagine that there are also people who actually have had a positive experience of boarding school for all sorts of different reasons. 

Joy: Yes, absolutely. I think it is really important to say that. There are people who have said to me that boarding school saved their lives. You know people who come from very disturbed homes and for other reasons. And some people just get on with boarding school, people who are very good with sport or at music and boarding school can give them huge benefits in that way. For some people boarding school is better than home and I think that’s the few people that it really makes a difference to. And that’s an important part of it.

Joanna: So they actually can find a sort of almost structure or containment within.

Joy: Exactly. 

Joanna: As apposed to a prison

Joy: Yes, well yes. I mean it is prison as well but with the rules, one of my patients said that at least at boarding school you knew where the punishments were coming from. You know, that it was predictable, that there were boundaries. And they are very extreme boundaries but for some children that is very helpful.

Joanna: Well it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you Joy. Thank you so much. I do hope everybody will come and hear more of Joy in October in Oxford. And until then I’ll say goodbye and thank you very much Joy. 

Joy: And thank you Joanna. 

about the speakers

Professor Joy Schaverien, PhD, is a Training Analyst of the Society of Analytical Psychology (London) with a private analytic and supervisory practice in the East Midlands. She is Visiting Professor for the Northern Programme for Art Psychotherapy and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Analytical Psychology. She has published extensively on topics related to art and analytical psychology and her recent books include: ‘The Dying Patient in Psychotherapy‘ (a single case study of an erotic transference/countertransference, which is soon to be republished by Routledge) and ‘Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child‘ (June 2015), which was a Routledge and Amazon bestseller.

For more information visit Joy Shaverien’s website

Joanna de Waal is a Jungian Analyst and member of the British Psychotherapy Foundation. She teaches on the West Midlands Institute of Psychotherapy Jungian Adult training and the bpf Jungian Adult Training; she is also a seminar leader for the Jugian Dream Workshops. A trained teacher and singer she has worked at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, the Tate, Crisis and various mental health and community organizations as a music practitioner and performer with a primary focus on voice. She currently lives and works in private practice in Oxford, UK.