Child Abuse at Boarding Schools

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Boarding school syndrome: The symptoms and long-term psychological effects

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Boarding School Syndrome is increasingly recognized as a specific syndrome by psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors. Many adults are suffering long-term emotional or behavioural difficulties, which stem from having lost normal family life through being sent away to boarding school as children.

In the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identified a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls “Boarding School Syndrome“.

In Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the 'Privileged' Child, Dr Joy Schaverien writes:

“Early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns. When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.”

Sufferers' symptoms are often hidden behind a brittle façade of competence. Shame from having had – what others perceive as a privileged start – can prevent them from acknowledging their distress. Such adults have difficulty asking for help and can experience all manner of intimate issues in relationships. They are frequently emotionally cut-off as a result of living in an atmosphere where it was normal to keep silent about emotional stress.

The Aspects and Symptoms of Boarding School Syndrome

Some of the presenting attitudes may include:

  • self-reliance
  • high moral values
  • pride in endurance
  • acute discomfort in asking for help
  • an arrogant or patronising manner
  • denial of pain
  • overachiever but may underestimate self

An ex-boarder could present the following symptoms:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • drugs and alcohol misuse and other addictions
  • burn-out
  • relationship issues – can only identify love towards own children
  • obsessive behaviour
  • a need to control

The experiences of ex-boarders

In consultations with a number of ex boarding school pupils, some of the comments made with regard to their feelings associated with being sent to boarding school include:

  • Unable to cry – no-one to cry to
  • Unable to share feelings – No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks “So, how was your day”
  • Have learnt to cope alone
  • Constantly seeking companionship/love/approval
  • Boarding school not only deprived me of love, creativity, self-esteem, etc….it left me in a permanent trap
  • Have not experienced love or care
  • Where's Home?
  • Fit in everywhere – but belong nowhere
  • Always busy. Don't know 'relaxed'
  • Live by structure
  • Tendency to shut down if there are any emotional problems
  • It either screws you up or toughens you up
  • Resented being ‘got rid of’ to boarding school
    • Was it my fault?
    • Is something wrong with me?
    • Don't they love me?
  • Lifetime avoidance of groups
  • Lack of privacy or private space. One tuck box, one bedside table to call yours

Some positive associations of boarding school

Many ex-boarders have noted that the boarding school experience has encouraged the development of self-reliance, independence, and the ability to just deal with [non-emotional] situations. The need to be self-sufficient and flexible has encouraged boarders to be adaptable with regard to food, travel and surviving uncomfortable living conditions

The Short and Long-Term Effects of Boarding School Syndrome

In an article titled “Lost For Words” published in TherapyToday.Net, therapist Dr Joy Schaverien writes:

“The traumatic impact of early boarding damages the child’s relationship to her or himself and as a consequence the ability to speak of feelings. This is not immediately apparent in psychotherapy but it can be observed in certain behaviour patterns. This has led me to conclude that these constitute a recognisable set of patterns, which I have identified as boarding school syndrome.”

The complex nature of boarding school syndrome may result in the condition not being fully understood or recognised by the medical profession – with the exception of experienced or insightful mental health professionals.

Physical and Sexual Abuse in boarding schools

For some ex-boarders, boarding school is a positive and challenging experience which promotes self-development and learning. However for other pupils, painful memories of physical, emotional or sexual abuse at boarding school will have a lasting effect on their lives.

While child abuse is damaging for all children, it can often be a unique and significant issue for ex-boarders – for a number of reasons:

  • Paedophiles may choose to operate in boarding schools where it is easier to isolate and abuse children
  • Boarding school pupils may experience ‘boarding school syndrome’ and therefore any subsequent trust and emotional development issues may result in the inability to acknowledge the abuse and to share feelings with friends or family members.
  • The culture of the boarding school may include practices and traditions where the violation of personal privacy and boundaries may be the norm.

“Adults who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt both to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices such as humiliation, sexual violation, and bullying and to keep silent about them. When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don't even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering ” (Source: ‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System’, Nick Duffell).

Abuse of any kind is a betrayal of trust from those you expected to have your best interests at heart and the distress carries on through life affecting relationships, intimacy, safety, trust, emotional engagement and self-esteem.

Abuse can stunt growth, limit learning when the child is in constant fear, can silence a child's true self so they unknowingly create a “Strategic Survival Personality” – which they carry into adulthood.

Help for sufferers of boarding school syndrome

The syndrome is often a complex web of symptoms, in which the client initially seeks help to cope with a painful experience or life event. However deeper analysis often reveals childhood trauma and / or abuse which had been buried and ignored for decades. There are many triggers that bring past upsets and traumas to the fore. Some ex boarders only seek help once parents have died.

Experienced boarding school therapist, Rosemary Lamaison comments: ” 40-60% of my clients present with one problem but then disclose sexual abuse.”

As such Ex boarders’ emotional and psychological problems are best treated with specialised knowledge and a properly informed practitioner. It takes a lot of courage to talk things through with someone. The experience of being heard and understood, of sharing with someone who can hear and help you is empowering.


Rosemary Lamaison

Rosemary Lamaison: Boarding school syndrome therapist

Rosemary Lamaison is a psychodynamic counsellor and attended the 2005 specialist diploma training 'Psychotherapy with ex-Boarders' with Nick Duffell, Helena Lovendäl & Joy Schaverien. Her work, over 20 years, covers relationship and intimacy issues, couples work, anxiety, loss / separation / bereavement, depression, confidence building, sexual and physical abuse, life changes, eating and weight worries, sexuality and racial issues. She runs workshops for Parents – Ten Top Tips for Parents, How do we know how to Parent our Children, Living with a Teenager, Sibling Rivalry, as well as on Loss, Anger Management, Transition. For more information please contact Rosemary on 0208 8688020 or visit 


Schaverien, J. Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the 'Privileged' Child

Useful Links

Rosemary Lamaison, Therapist Specialising in Boarding School Syndrome and Ex-Boarders Issues  0208 868 8020

Malcolm Underhill, Abuse Solicitor Specialising in Child Abuse Compensation Claims. Malcolm Underhill is an expert on abuse compensation claims. If you have been abused, our team of specialist qualified child abuse lawyers can provide help and advice, seeking to help you beyond the law. For more information please contact Malcolm on 01895 207972 or or visit our page dedicated to abuse in boarding schools.

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