Yes, Eton pupils like Harry and William are privileged — but boarding can be traumatic
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Early boarding in school can have a profound effect on psychological development, which lasts well beyond childhood and can have an impact on relationships in adult life. In my book, Boarding School Syndrome, I outlined a series of traumas experi-enced by children sent away at a young age. These are the ABCD of boarding school syndrome: abandonment, bereavement, captivity and the resulting disassociation.
The negative effect on intimate relationships starts with what is often unconsciously perceived as betrayal by the parents. No matter how good the school, or well-intentioned the parents, children feel abandoned. The initial abandonment is shocking for small children. They lose all that is familiar in one day: home, parents, siblings and nanny are gone. This sudden total rupture in attachments is devastating. It is compounded, later, by its repetition: every time the parents visit, or children return from their “holidays”, they are again abandoned.
At a young age, children are unable to speak about what has happened to them, with no adults to attune to their individual experience and explain their emotional reality, they are literally “lost for words”. Exiled and alone, they have to fend for them-selves. The subsequent “homesickness” is a form of bereavement. If there is divorce or a parent dies while the child is at school they are very often left to manage without psychological help.
In school it may be considered a good idea to distract children, rather than to permit time and space to grieve. Children are captive, unable to make autonomous decisions; for example, to leave. Displays of emotion are frowned upon and may be brushed aside. Ashamed, children hide their crying under the bedclothes at night. There is still, even today, a sense of survival of the fittest.
The children that show vulnerability might be picked on and even bullied for exposing their perceived weakness. The result of all this is disassociation which is a known response to trauma. But this trauma is deemed to be a privilege, which confuses the child.
When children return home after experiencing these multiple traumas, they are no longer known to their families. They cannot speak of their experiences; overwhelmed, they do not have words for it all. Some describe it as “not feeling real”. They may present a false self so they seem apparently unchanged. A polite but distant relationship may develop within the family. The behaviour is such that parents rarely notice that anything is wrong.
When siblings are sent to the same school, they may be able to help each other. Very close bonds can be formed by children sharing this experience. However, some siblings recount being barely more than passing strangers during term time.
They miss out on love and the family rough-and-tumble of the teenage years. As a result, very often a polite but distant relationship may continue into adulthood. Occasionally some of the pain may break through into adult behaviour. In previous generations the schools were often single sex so this added another unreal aspect to the situation. All of this may later affect marriage, sibling and other intimate relationships.
Joy Schaverien is the author of Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child