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Boarding School Syndrome and Third Culture Kids

So, there is an article in popular circulation at present, entitled: “The Long Term Impact of Boarding School”. And it makes for uncomfortable reading. The article expounds on Joy Schaverien’s research and experience working with ex-boarding school students, and the development of what she describes as a “boarding school syndrome”. For an interview with Joy on her work, click here.

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This article is unequivocal in its belief that the boarding school experience is harmful to children, and that this harm extends into their adult lives. It equates the separation of the child from the family unit to a bereavement, made all the worse due to repetition of loss. The writer describes boarding school children as without love, alert for rejection, and homeless. The pain of separation may disrupt “narrative flow“, as children’s emotional attachments are disrupted. It is noted that the rupture of the family unit can reconfigure sibling bonds; compensating “for the loss of family and the significance of the sibling group continues into adult life as a sense of belonging is maintained.” The article stresses the presence of trauma so deeply felt, even into adulthood, that it becomes embodied with mental and emotional pain displaying in a range of physical symptoms.

I repeat; uncomfortable reading. Uncomfortable because loving parents send their children to boarding school. Uncomfortable because I have interviewed Third Culture Kids who have fond memories of their boarding school days. Uncomfortable because despite this, I remember one interviewee’s description of the “loving abandonment” that continues to haunt his adult life. Uncomfortable because while I tend to steer clear of any sweeping statements about one parenting choice over another (it doesn’t do to make a philosophy out of personal life choices), this article has reminded me of my own research findings and the echoes that resonate between them.

Disrupted Emotional Attachments

My fieldwork in a small international school noted that “Dorm parents tended to be of Euro-American backgrounds, and the majority language of the dormitory was English, despite the presence of multiple nationalities represented by the students living there” (Cason, 2015:132).  I observed what I described in my thesis as “language supremacy”, where speakers of one language are privileged in some way over the speakers of another, as “inseparable from… relations of power, language ideologies, and interlocutors’ views of their own and others’ identities” (Pavlenko and Blackledge2004:1). Here we can see that, in addition to experiencing separation from parents and perhaps siblings also, students may also experience alienation from their linguistic “homes”, and so from their national identities also.

In one interview, a student expressed how close he felt to his dorm “family”; “And the people on campus were more of a family to me. They were so close to me… and I think that was where I really wanted to live” (Cason, 2015:133). And this is just the kind of disruption of attachment that the article refers to; the student feels more at home away from the parental unit, splitting their identity across the two sets of relationships.

Several students interviewed also referred to high staff turnover as contributing to some attachment disruption; “the new dorm parents, they didn’t know what was going on [with me emotionally] because they hadn’t been there the year before” (Cason, 2015:134). Shared history matters in the development and maintenance of emotional attachments, and where staffing changes are frequent, students lack access to emotional constancy. Another impact of high turnover reported was inconsistency of discipline; “every year, you had to find out what the rules were this year… some years there’d be corporal punishment… others it was sitting in the corner… new dorm parents, new rules!” (Cason, 2015:135). Uncertainty around boundaries and consequences would only add to the “alertness” and expectation of rejection the article describes as arising from disrupted emotional attachments.

Repetition of Loss

Joy also emphasises the impact of repeated loss, a phenomena I identify in my interviews with adult TCKs as routine loss. In some cases, being separated from parents was more significant than separation from parental love and affection; it could engender a fear for the parents’ safety. For one TCK of military background, this fear instigated a hospital stay due to a breakdown. She told me, “I think I kind of gave up watching the news cause I thought any minute now I’m gonna see my dad turn up, you know, strewn across the ground kind of thing…” (Cason, 2015:178). Another TCK, of military background recalled “being at times really worried for my parents knowing that if anything happened I wouldn’t necessarily hear about it for a couple of weeks… I found out the other day… they were both down with yellow fever… but again I didn’t find out ’till years later” (Cason, 2015:179).

Even for those TCKs not at boarding school, the “built-in reality of expatriate organisational life” could introduce routine separation as part of the TCK experience, where one or more parents travelled as part of their work; “I never really saw my dad that much cause he was always away on business trips… whenever he came back from a business trip I’d always wanna hold my mum’s hand and not his” (Cason, 2015:180). Where loss can be projected and predicted, children will develop coping mechanisms to respond to “and expectation of being left”, says this article, “which is often unconsciously active in later life”.

Narrative Flow

This is an interesting one. The article pegs this issue arising from a lack of time markers, such as birthday celebrations, in boarding school. This didn’t emerge as an issue in my interviews with TCK ex-boarders, but instead there were issues around emotional narrative flow. Interviewees were often very fluent discussing their time at boarding school, but family life events featured much less, or were fixed in ‘holiday mode’ where students had fewer family life routines to structure their narration. One interviewee demonstrated this aptly as they related; “I probably never got to know my parents as well as most people know their parents on account of being, that I lived, separated from them most of the time… when my wife first got to know me she thought my parents must be dead or divorced… because I never mentioned them… But the fact is they just weren’t, I guess, part of my… imaginary” (Cason, 2015:180-1).

Pain in Adult Life

As with all research, findings will not apply to the entirety of the population under discussion. So if you are a boarding school student or ex-boarder, and these issues raised by the article linked above do not apply, your experience is as valid too. One of my ex-boarding interviewees was very clear about his close relationship with his parents, saying, “I like some sort of, like, anchoring point, and maybe the thing is… my parents are here [in the same country] so… I can ring them like every week. Maybe contact them and meet them twice a week” (Cason, 2015:182). But… others also told me, “I don’t feel that close to my parents… I’m kind of speculating that perhaps it had something to do with basically leaving… the home at 14” (Cason, 2015:183). And perhaps the most painful account of family fragmentation due to boarding school; “And so… every chance I get I let her know… Mum, I spent another $85 this week on counselling… I just don’t want her to reach old age thinking that she’s accomplished something as a mother” (Cason, 2015:183).

There are some hurting ex-boarders out there, and hurting parents. The Boarding School Syndrome may not be a popular concept for many, but for those who need a language with which to express the validity of their experiences, it is a valuable one.

If you would like support in processing your experiences as a Third Culture Kid, or as someone affected by boarding school, do get in touch. All stories matter, and I’d love to hear yours. Email me here for a free consultation.

**Note: Joy Schaverien writes of boarding schools from a British perspective.

CASON, R. (2015) ‘Third Culture Kids’: migration narratives on belonging, identity and place. Unpublished Thesis. Keele University. Click here for full access.

PAVLENKO, A. AND BLACKLEDGE, A., eds (2004) Negotiation of Identities in Multilingual Contexts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

8 comments

  1. Dianne Couts says:

    Thanks, Rachel, for these additional insights into the effects of boarding school. I’d be interested in reading your thesis, if it is available. (The link led me to a page where I needed to login.)

  2. It is both interesting and ironic to see all the recent research on the long term effects of boarding school. In 1984, when I did some journaling to try to understand my own TCK story and why with the truly wonderful life I had as a child and adult,there was this undercurrent of depression in my life, I began that journaling with my first night in boarding school. As I wrote, I could feel all of that loneliness again and tried to grab words to name the feelings I felt as a child but had no words to define. When that journaling finally came out in what is now “Letters Never Sent” there was a significant push back to what i wrote about my feelings as a six and seven year old away from home. My purpose at the time wasn’t to make a statement about boarding schools as I had, in fact, never thought it was ‘any big deal’ as I had done well there, never thought my parents didn’t love me…it’s just how our community did life at that point. Through the years, however, I have heard enough other stories to know there are effects, though, like Rachel, there is no absolute answer. Anyhow it is interesting to me to see this new work coming out on the topic. If anyone wants a child’s view into what it felt like, I suppose the first few pages of “Letters” gives you an inside look. Interesting discussion. Thanks, Rachel et al!

    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Ruth. I loved Letters Never Sent and was very touched by it. This seemed odd to me at the time, as I’ve never attended boarding school myself! This is why I wonder how much intersection there might be in the losses inherent in the TCK experience, that would connect with those of non-TCK boarders, as well as TCK ones. Thanks again for your thoughts!

    • Marilyn says:

      yes, yes, yes! It always goes back to that first night! I write about it in my book as well. It is such a vivid, emotional night that I’m not sure non-boarders would ever get it. Thanks Rachel for this – Thanks Ruth for – well so very much. Can’t wait to talk more with both of you.

  3. Michael P says:

    Wow, yes, thanks for this Rachel. I’m sorry to not have referenced this material in the new version of the TCK book…but let’s keep the conversation open. It seems that ‘attachment theory’ really is a helpful tool to understand long term dynamics. I read a thesis a couple years back indicating that for older students (high school) being in boarding school could actually help with certain attachments and transition. Then I read the Danish study this fall on long term impact of moving, and the work cited in Doug Ota’s book on the impact of mobility on learning. So there is a multi-factor issue with boarding school. I never went, but many friends did. I did stay in a dorm while my parents went away and the thought of it as an elementary kid was difficult after just one week. Thanks for your work!

    • Dr. Rachel Cason says:

      I need to get your book! Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Michael… Attachment Theory is really useful, true… and thinking long term is key. Awareness that future issues might crop up is really helpful for if/when they hit! I think coping mechanisms are a useful concept here too… we develop coping mechanisms in context. These are great for resourcing similar contexts, but can be unhelpful used elsewhere…. not necessarily wrong in themselves, just not good for ‘now’…

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