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For many, thinking about their boarding school stay can bring many positive memories and happy moments. But for others, the same thoughts can quickly trigger a full-blown attack of post-traumatic stress disorder. The opinions and experiences related to boarding schools are diverse and divided and may confuse anyone who plans to join one. In reality, someone who did not struggle academically found good friends and was not in a minority group is likely to have a good time.

However, for a few people, the experience of attending a boarding school revolves around getting away from family, sometimes at a very early age. This leaves them with multiple emotional scars and unhealthy behaviours developed as a survival strategy during their time in the boarding school. These issues and many others are collectively termed boarding school syndrome.

What is boarding school syndrome? How does it manifest in an individual, and what are different ways to treat its symptoms? This article will detail the key features of this lesser-known psychiatric issue.

Boarding school syndrome refers to a wide range of symptoms that individuals develop during their time at a boarding school. These issues commonly include workaholism, parenting and relationship problems, substance misuse, difficulty relaxing, drug dependence, sleep issues, a fear of inadequacy, and more. Most of these problems are due to social advantage, neglect, and being transferred from a loving home to a school where abuse and bullying are common.

Without recognising boarding school survivors’ symptoms, it is impossible to reverse the impact of what children and adolescents learn in the hot-house pressure of a boarding school. To confirm if you or a loved one are suffering from this mental health issue, answer the following questions:

  • Are you concerned about the difficulties you face with emotional closeness?
  • Do you find it hard to unwind?
  • Do you consider yourself a control freak?
  • Have you faced trouble finding things to do during downtime?
  • Do you perform well in finances and career but struggle with emotional regulation?
  • Do you ever feel like a loser or worry about being perceived as a loser?
  • Are you scared of becoming unlovable?
  • Do you often avoid your partner in an intimate relationship?
  • Have you ever felt disconnected from your own needs?
  • Do you prefer working late than spending time with your loved one?
  • Do you ever feel alone even when there are many people around you?
  • Do you ever consider that you are not genuinely joyous or happy in life?
  • Do others around you treat you like a bully?
  • Are you facing difficulties in raising a child?
  • Have you ever battled an addiction?
  • Do you struggle with sleep or sexual issues?
  • Do you fear being exposed as an imposter or a con artist?
  • Do you quickly become stressed?
  • Can you offer financial support to your family but are not with them emotionally?
  • Do you tend to avoid conflicts in your relationship, especially when things are not going well?
  • Do your partners often describe you as cold or hot in a relationship?
  • Do you care for your loved ones but struggle to look after yourself?

If you have answered yes to most of the questions described above, you might be suffering from boarding school syndrome. So what’s next?

First and foremost, you must understand that you are not alone in this situation, and many ex-boarders reports facing difficulties in the areas mentioned above. Secondly, multiple conventional and non-conventional therapies are readily available all across the UK to help overcome this issue.

Many ex-boarders may identify with one or more of the following issues in their relationships:

  • They are unemotional, guarded, sarcastic, and often withhold their feelings
  • They feel the need to stay in control of their relationships
  • They are wary of commitment and suffer from attachment issues due to the fear of being hurt
  • They prefer work relationships over personal relationships
  • They find it hard to communicate what they are feeling with their loved ones
  • They are unable to bond with their children and do not know how to become a loving parent
  • They are terrified of being abandoned, which makes them clingy or avoidant

Discussing these boarding school syndrome symptoms with a skilled therapist can help ex-boarders make positive changes in how they interact with others. Interventions like family therapy and CBT may make a difference in this aspect.

It is common for boarding school survivors to experience depressive episodes due to not learning to self-soothe and self-regulate as children. These coping mechanisms they might have learned during school may no longer serve them now as adults. For such individuals, scrutinising their survival strategies and coping mechanisms from an adult’s perspective under the supervision of skilled therapy is critical. Doing so can help them “un-learn” these ineffective strategies and replace them with healthier responses to triggers in adult life.

Irrespective of where it happens, bullying can be an awful experience for the victim. It can take place in both day schools and boarding schools; however, the difference is that the victim may find it hard to share their experience with a loving adult in a boarding school. Moreover, because a child has to live with the perpetrators night and day, there is usually no getting away from bullying in boarding schools.

Because all children living in a boarding school are miles away from their homes and have been institutionalised at a very young age, bullying in a boarding school can be pervasive. Such children are left to their own devices without adult supervision, which may make some extremely cruel. The others, i.e., the victims, have no place to hide, no escape to a safe home, no parents to tell, and no relief. As a result, those who have experienced regular bullying in boarding schools carry deep emotional scars into adulthood. Many times, these scars give rise to other issues like low self-esteem, confidence issues, or a tendency to become a bully themselves.

For all such ex-boarders, it is advised to work closely with a therapist in a dedicated clinic about their experiences in the boarding school. Sometimes, these experts may offer trauma-focused therapies to help them heal from their traumatic past and close the painful chapter of their early lives.

Children who tend to stay away from home with no protection from parents often fall victim to abuse. It is a sad reality that many boarding schools witness multiple sexual and physical abuse cases. Some may find it shocking that children put into the care of adults by their parents can end up getting abused by the very adults entrusted with their care.

Abuse at a boarding school does not necessarily come from teachers or other staff members running these institutions. Sometimes, fellow pupils are also involved in perpetuating these heinous acts. Worse, most boarding schools openly accept different forms of abuse and may turn a blind eye to it. Some people may ritualise these incidents of abuse as a normal part of life at a boarding school. The senior pupils may convince the newbies who have just joined a boarding school that getting abused is a rite of passage into the new environment. However, in reality, abuse in any form only leaves victims more traumatised.

For ex-boarders with a history of abuse, a therapist may offer the following behavioural interventions to contain the damage: 

  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PET)
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

If you are an ex-boarder suffering from boarding school syndrome since childhood, finding the right therapist to help you through your active issues is imperative. Remember that good therapy and treatment are based on a solid therapeutic relationship between an individual and their therapist. Confidence, trust, safety, and support are all keys to building a successful working relationship and maximising recovery.

Start looking for a well-trained and experienced therapist today to manage your symptoms. If you feel like your condition is significantly impairing your daily functioning, seeking inpatient treatment at a trauma-focused rehab might be an option. Additionally, a therapeutic boarding school UK can help adolescents fight the side effects of a boarding school by offering them treatment for their behavioural issues in a safe and comfortable space.

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