Boarding School Syndrome

Updated: July 23, 2022

Although Boarding School Syndrome is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, it is increasingly recognised as a serious condition, leading to psychological distress.  It is thought to manifest as a cluster of emotional states and learned behaviours that can occur from growing up in a boarding school.

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What Is Boarding School Syndrome?

Boarding School Syndrome was coined in 2011 by Jungian psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, PhD.  It describes the potential psychological, emotional, and behavioural impact to adults who were sent away to boarding school at a young age.  As adults, they may be incredibly successful in working life, but also suffer mental health problems.


These include, anxiety, depression, and trauma, and for some a difficulty with communication, and maintaining intimate relationships. Schaverien developed an acronym to help understand the issues, ABCD: A for abandonment, B for bereavement, C for captivity and D for dissociation.


Abandoned is how young children might feel when they are taken from the security of home, to a place where they are under the control of adults they don’t know.  Children may therefore expect rejection and find it difficult to trust in loving relationships.


Bereavement may be called ‘homesickness’ and refers to the mourning and devastation that children can feel at losing their family and having minimal contact with them.


Captivity refers to the boarding school environment which has much in common with prison life. Daily life is highly regimented, with strict meal and bed times, and children have to ask permission to leave.


Dissociation is a mental process whereby individuals disconnect from their thoughts, memories, feelings, or sense of identity.


So if you attended boarding school as a child and are experiencing difficulties you may benefit from working with a therapist.

What Are The Symptoms?


The world can seem like a scary place to a child who is separated from family.  Indeed, the experience of boarding school can be a risk factor for developing separation anxiety, and a generally anxious disposition.


The trauma of abandonment and how it affects social interaction means it is difficult to experience the loving relationships that are necessary for healthy development.  This often means that children can become depressed, and this can continue (on and off) into adulthood.

Distrust Of Loving Relationships

Very early in life, ex-boarders experience feelings of abandonment by family.  These teach them a harsh lesson; that they will be left.  Because of this, an expectation of rejection develops.  This creates the inability to depend on, and trust in loving relationships.

Emotional Withdrawal

Even though ex-boarders want and need emotional connection, they may withdraw emotionally from intimate relationships.  This is due to a very strong fear of abandonment.

Emotionally Disconnected & Numb

As a child you learned that to protect yourself and survive, you had to shut off the parts of yourself that felt vulnerable.  This created a shield around your emotional self and became second nature, essentially a part of your personality and how you interact in the world.


Children, especially girls may carry shame, especially if they are made to feel humiliated and ashamed as a form of punishment.

What Causes Boarding School Syndrome?

When children are sent to boarding school at a young age they lose their attachments, this includes their parents and siblings, their peers, their home, any pets they have, the food they’re used to, the environment, and bed.


This can create shock, and a whole host of difficult emotions including, loss, grief, and mourning, feelings of abandonment and alienation, and significant trauma.  This experience of loss and the gamut of feelings that come with it are a major ongoing trauma because it is repeated every time children have to return to school.

Children in boarding school may feel and be unsafe, this is especially true if they are at the mercy of bullies, or sexual predators, these kinds of experiences add to their trauma, and the development of boarding school syndrome.

In the boarding school setting, vulnerability and emotions have no place because if a child shows them, they risk being bullied.  In order to survive, children are forced to adapt and develop a protective shield to defend themselves, this means the real self is hidden, and this disconnected way of relating to the self and others can continue into adulthood, impacting intimate relationships.

This inability to connect with others is due to a disassociation from the emotional self.  But this comes at a cost (that is, boarding school syndrome), because as social creatures, we need to feel connected to others for healthy development.

How Phinity Therapy Can Help

At Phinity we will start my taking a thorough psychological assessment, this helps us understand what your life currently looks like, and provides a backdrop for the issues you are bringing to therapy.

After this, we will have a more in depth discussion about your concerns and how they impact your life, and the areas you would like to address for improved  psychological and emotional health and wellbeing.

Depending on these initial discussions, we will offer recommendations about the kinds of therapies that will benefit you the most and help you to address your concerns.  For example, you may benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which offers the ability to Accept your reactions and be present, Choose a valued direction, and Take action.  Or you might prefer one of the other therapies below.  You can be assured, we will guide you through the most helpful options, for you.

What Causes Boarding School Syndrome?How Phinity Therapy Can Help


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