Does Boarding School Screw You Up For Life?

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I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.

So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.

Weird? Yes.

Formative? Definitely.

Here’s a recent editorial from The Guardian on sending young kids off to boarding school — considered perfectly normal behavior by some Britons:

So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.

The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.

In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “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.

So true.

It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!

The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings? Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.

I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.

Some of what you learn:

You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.

You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.

A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.

Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)

Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.

Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.

Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.

The upsides:

Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.

All good things!

Did you leave your family at an early age?

How did it affect you?

83 thoughts on “Does Boarding School Screw You Up For Life?

  1. Boarding school makes me think of residential schools- Canada’s dark history. I know it isn’t the same, but I think by going to residential and boarding schools you lose a sense of parenting. Meaning, it’s harder to be a parent when when you didn’t grow up learning how one does it. I’m sure there are plenty of people who adapt successfully. As a teacher, it sadens me when parents ignore their children right in front of me… I can’t even imagine what it is like at home for these students. Maybe they would be better off in boarding school.

    Taking a look at the path not travelled, do you think you would have been the same person had you lived full time with one of your parents? It is an interesting concept to think about!

    1. Great question…My mom is bipolar and divorced and my Dad traveled a lot. So I’m not persuaded that living with either of them would have been a whole lot easier. Boarding school is rigid and unyielding but it also offered structure and routine, which little kids tend to like…it got much harder when I was 12 and 13 and needed to rebel!

      I did live with my Dad from ages 14.5 to 19 and it also shaped me in many ways, most of which I’m happy with.

      I never had kids and never wanted them, quite possibly as a result of this life.

    2. stiff upper lip is absolutely no solace for a young soul slaughtered.Thank god my school Lawrence house made the mistake of having an alumni web site.The school has been torn down thank god one of the most evil institutions since Dickens days!Beatings,shrieking,mental,physical torture plus a number of Jimmy Savile vile goings on! It has thank god cleared my soul to call out all their names living and deceased and thank god I have forgiven the bastards.If I lived in Britain I would sue but Im now in Hollywood!
      I was able to have my day and say.Thru that trauma I have gone on to be successful albeit never really to have close relationships as even at my advanced age Im still living the school term rotation. My name is Peter Beames once a great golfer now a writer of an animated feature appropriately called ” the boy who rode clouds “Thanks for letting me spout it still sits on top of my brain!

      1. Sorry to hear this. I wonder how differently such schools are run now — there have been several quite shocking sex-related scandals at fancy NYC prep schools in the past few years.

  2. As a parent, I could no more send my child away at age 8 than I could fly. Kids are at their most delightful between the ages of about 5 and 12. Why oh why would you want to miss those sweet moments? This post makes me want to wrap my arms around the 8 year-old you.

    1. Lorraine Rock

      I totally agree with Sarah, I was a little older than you, Broadside, just 3 months before my 11th birthday my sister (13) and I were sent to BS. My Father, a Naval Officer, was going overseas again. Until that time I had only slept away from home one night in my entire life.( I cannot imagine what my loving mother was thinking! When my children were that age I could never have done it, even though the thought crossed my mind when they were bratty!)
      My personality changed from that day, I can totally identify with the points made in the article, I am an overachiever, bossy, can only identify love towards my children, and have trouble intrinsically identifying any emotion other than anger.( I have to think about it! i.e. what am I feeling now?). I have been married 3 times, none of them happy, and have few friends. I’m just not good at relationships!

      1. Wow. Thank you for sharing this.

        I think the one thing that truly helped me was going to summer camp, where I felt very valued for being creative and a little odd, the the opposite of school. I made good friends there…without that, I hate to think how I might have ended up.

  3. It was an odd thing to leave my family behind, certainly, but it wasn’t the easiest family either, so who knows? I am very grateful now to have found such loving friends as you! I really appreciate people who are so nurturing and never take it for granted.

  4. Thanks for a great post. Boarding school may sometimes be unavoidable due to geographic circumstances but I’ve no doubt it has a lasting effect, some of those you mention here. I can’t imagine not having had my children close by. It’s good that you can see some of the upsides of your experience despite the costs. It’s fantastic that you have someone to give you so much love now.

    1. I don’t think all boarding schools are bad, by any means, and I think at a later age it’s probably a really good choice for some kids. I absolutely LOVED the basic notion there that women are/can be smart, athletic and high achieving. What else should we be? The standard roles are awful (to me) in comparison.

      I think living at home (which I did in Grade 7 with my Mom) would have been fun, but it was stressful as well.

      I am lucky indeed to have a sweetie like Jose in my life!!

  5. …I went to boarding school at eleven years. According to the excerpt I was older – but I was the only one in a family of five who toughed it out for eight years(primary and high school levels). Two of my siblings dropped off after the first term, one refused to go and the last one lasted one year.
    I usually credit my ability to adapt to changes easily because of my boarding school experience but the downer is I know nothing on sharing feelings. I dont take “emotional bonds” that seriously and about the tears? Its like I donated my tear ducts at some point without knowing….
    Am still confused whether it screwed me up or toughened me up BUT I know one thing for sure I learnt how to be independent early and cherish that as my biggest BOARDING SCHOOL achievement. ***SIGH***….

    1. This all sounds pretty familiar! At least your sibs rebelled. It didn’t even occur to me I had a choice, until they asked me to leave…

      I so rarely cry, but I don’t see this as a weakness, but a strength. When others collapse into floods of tears over silly shit (and they do) I’m the cool cookie in the corner figuring out what to DO next. The people who truly know and love me are very aware how sensitive I am, but how much I dislike showing it.

      I basically “left home” so early that adult independence was not such a big deal when I left my Dad’s home at 19, for good. Have never lived with my Mom after the age 14 or my dad after the age of 19. I have little patience with people (unless really destitute) who run home to their parents as adults. I do know it’s left me with very little taste for authority figures!

      1. Jill

        You sound like a cold, unhappy, woman now. Our children are meant to be brought up by their parents – barring severe circumstances. How do boarding kids learn to maintain the closeness/struggles within a family? Certainly not the “community at boarding school?!!” Cut that family experience off at age 12 or 13 and a kids development becomes impaired at best. Those who send young teens off to strangers to raise/educate their kids do it to
        1- get out of parenting
        2- continue to gain their own self esteem through their kid who attends famous school X.
        3- were never that connected to their kids in the first place–
        Also another extreme situation might be present :
        4- absolutely NO proper education in vicinity of family
        5. Kids who have with parents with severe mental illness,
        6- parents who, despite knowing that their careers would never allow for any stability — had kids anyway.

        If you don’t want to raise kids and fully parent them – DONT HAVE KIDS! Be a super involved aunt or uncle… Be a mentor, get a puppy.

        And I am sure I’m missing other equally sad reasons. Sure, some kids do well. But when asked “why did you start boarding school at 12, instead of just launching at the ordinary age of 18 or so for college,” how will your kid answer?my

  6. Helena

    I admire your frankness and resilience greatly. Thank you for this candid account.
    I was a few grades ahead of you at the high school you went to (after I believe) the boarding school, but we never knew each other.
    I’m enjoying your insightful and elegant blog.

    1. Thanks! A friend and I were discussing that frankness last night and wondered if it’s overkill. But I hope not.

      My experience at the high school had its own share of challenges, but it was, on balance, a good change after years of an all-female environment. I’m glad I had both.

  7. macolady

    Very interesting discussion. Thanks for opening it up. I grew up in a so-called “normal” family w/ loving and caring parents. But I’ve observed enough of people to wonder the same thing but opposite. In other words, w/o the boarding school equation. I’ve seen kids who grow up in the same home, same rules, same socio-economics and most importantly same parents yet turn out so very different. I would think personal experiences, personality, ambitions and a host of other factors is what makes the difference. What I find interesting is the way you describe yourself… you sound a lot like me and yet our upbringing and circumstances are polar opposites.

    Which brings forth the notion of whether to board or not to board is even the right question to ask in whether someone will be “screwed up.” If what you’re really wanting to delve at is “What’s best for my family and my child in terms of how he/she will turn out.” Then perhaps the question is WHY send a child to boarding school. Endless possibilities there.

    My husband did go to boarding school at age 7. He enjoyed much more about it than the negatives. The same can be said for his three siblings who also went to the same school. To be fair, I should clarify. My in-laws were missionaries to a remote tribe in the Amazon jungle and the only way to ensure an education at all was to send them to a boarding school for missionary children (also in the jungle). The circumstances are very different. The teachers and dorm parents (kids live w/ their siblings, other sets of siblings under the roof of a dorm mom and dad who over time become more an aunt and uncle) and other staff at the school all knew my in-laws and all the other parents very well, considered themselves co-workers in fact. The atmosphere of the boarding school was strict w/ lots of rules and chores but it was still a family atmosphere where a common purpose was clear, “We’re all in this together.”

    Many years later, I worked at the same boarding school as a teacher and got to observe many kids (grades 1-12) and talk to them about their perception of their boarding school experience. That first-hand experience, plus meeting and knowing personally many former students now as adults, my own feeling about boarding schools (taking into account that this particular setting is likely a best case scenario for many reasons and on many levels) is that the separation of parent/child is still a very difficult situation and choice that cannot, in my opinion, be termed as good/bad, right/wrong. I’ve come to think that each family has to evaluate what’s best for their child and their family given their unique life circumstances.

    However, I will add, that my biggest observation in what determined how a child adapted and viewed his/her boarding school experience depended largely on the parents. Did the child perceive a confidence at home in the school and staff and a belief that they were vested in the child’s well-being. And most importantly, did the child feel secure about his parent’s love and his place in his own family. What I mean by this is did the child believe they were at boarding school because they viewed themselves as part of a family and a part of their parent’s work w/ tribal people or did they feel they were there because they were in the way of their parent’s work. This invariably was what one could usually trace to find why some kids were so content or others discontent. And yes, there were a few who blamed their parents for ruining their lives (while at school). Now with a few years behind them… like you they can see the benefits and be thankful for them while being honest about the negatives.

    1. What a fascinating story! Thanks so much for sharing it!

      You very astutely describe some of the important issues at play — WHY a child is sent away and at such a young age. I still don’t know! The official story is that my mother traveled often for her work (true) but that doesn’t really work for me in itself. She is also bi-polar, and after I witnessed a few breakdowns alone firsthand that sure made more sense, to be shielded from it.

      But it’s also very much a question of how the staff treats you. I was always in trouble, (I was funny, but enough already), and quirky (they liked “normal”). I found the tendency to squash every bit of individuality appalling. I loathed endless and arbitrary rules. I hated having to share space ALL the time…the ultimate punishment (SCORE!) was to be exiled to…a room by yourself. Which I finally was in my final months in my last year. Talk about negative reinforcement. 🙂

      I did very much — and still do — appreciate my school’s expectation that smart, talented girls would grow up to become smart, talented women. Without ever hearing the word “feminism.” I know that doing hours (literally) of daily homework from a very early age taught me the value of self-discipline. I began winning awards for my writing there at the age of 12, chosen from a competitive field of very bright girls. I wonder if I’d have become a writer without such early and powerful reinforcement.

  8. While I agree with most of your points, I work at an American boarding school where numbers 1, 2, and 7 are definitely not true. Our teachers and advisors are emotionally present for our students in a way that not every patent can be. They also have the benefit of the wisdom of having raised 100s of teenagers.

    I am not a fan of early boarding, but I think that high school boarding, the right high school boarding, is a good alternative to certain situations (poor local schools, parents who travel a lot, a child who needs a more accepting community, a child who needs more challenge).

    1. Thanks for sharing a current professional American perspective…I am also writing about a Canadian school and my experience of 30 years ago. I most certainly HOPE that others’ experiences are happier than some of mine were. I doubt American parents paying the high fees of today would tolerate miserable students. (I suspect British schools are still counting on the “stiff upper lip.”)

      I also agree that the challenges of a good school that is also emotionally nurturing (however that is possible within an institutional setting) are helpful to some students. I was fairly appalled at how utterly uninterested my school was in my emotional issues, even as I kept winning academic awards and bursaries for my intellectual abilities. Their loss.

  9. siva

    I am 38, Male. From the age of 3 to 17 I grew up in a rigid Catholic boarding school in India. Many kids did, as it was the popular culture that if you went to boading school, you will come out disciplined. I got smacked often by hostel wardens and teachers (parents encouraged this so it will instill discipline in you). I am paying the price now as an adult. Although I am independent, adapt easily to situations, I am always looking for rules to conform to. I submit to authority without questioning. I will eat any type of food that is put on my plate without complaining. Hair combed, shoes polished everyday until today. Problem is that, I am constantly seeking for companionship or love, and approval. I always underestimate myself even though I am a high achiever. Sometimes I try to rebel at this age (lol) in a meek way so as not to break any rules or offend anyone. Boarding school not only deprived me of love, creativity, self-esteem, etc….it left me in a permanent trap.

    1. Smacked!? How awful…It was bad enough for me being yelled at.

      Sorry that this had such an effect on you, but I can see how it would. I still tend to carry food around with me (!) in case there isn’t any….too many years of not-great food and not enough of it.

  10. It only occurred to me recently to Google the Psychological effects of boarding school so here I am. I was ‘packed off’ to prep school when I had just turned 10. It was only 20 miles from home and we were allowed home every second Sunday. It was a tough time, cold dormitories, cold wet rugby and cross country running and weird gymnastics classes from the janitor who was an ex regimental sergeant major who enjoyed pressing his boot on you when you were doing push ups. The lonelyness was the worst. I have two sisters who were sent off to board also but that did not last long and they ended up going daily. It was interesting to meet people from other parts of the world. My parents were busy but it was a happy marriage.
    Going to the next ‘public school’ was much more remote and home was visited only during vacation.
    Looking back of course one filters out the things that you continued to enjoy in later life. I played rugby till I was 40 and still enjoy many out door activities.
    I adjusted to socialising with the opposite sex once I left and made up for lost time. You could only do so much through letter writing. I got married at a fairly early age of 23 and divorced 13 years later. I resented being ‘got rid of’ to boarding school for many years and that caused considerable rifts especially with my mother in later life. I did make up on that score before it was too late and eventually when much older accepted that they were doing it to give me a chance of a better than average education.
    I think I blame boarding school now for the tendency to shut down if there are problems with other family members (two sons). we get over the difficulties but I still shut down totally for a time till I find a way out. I had several mostly happy relationships but never got re-married. Discussing emotional issues was always difficult.
    I don’t panic when confronted with difficulty but just deal with the situation.
    I am aware that depression is something to be very conscious of and it does rear it’s ugly head occassionally. I learned a long time ago to write stuff down in tough times – that seemed to help.
    I never dreamed of sending my own children to boarding school although one was given a chance to study away from home in his teens for 8 months and that worked out well.
    It is nice to be in touch with a number of friends from those days after many years through social media and most of the memories now are good ones but I think the impact ones emotional life is not always fully understood.

    1. Thanks for sharing so much detail.

      I had not really linked my ability to shut down and just focus (without emoting) to boarding school but that is probably true. It has proven useful in my field of journalism, so it was an adaptive mechanism in that respect. But I am always amazed by parents who spend a lot of emotional energy on their kids. What must that feel like?

  11. I went to boarding school all my school life. I didnt know I hated it till i visited an aunt of mine who was in a cult and had to wake up at ungodly hours to meditate, attend sessions of counseling and speeches about karma by the cult leader and have to serve an old lady by collecting water for their home as seva because we did not follow the cult rules (which we did not know of course, being visitors) and kneel when we should have. When my mum picked us up to go home after a few days at the place, I remember thinking; I have been feeling like how i feel when i am in school the whole time i was here. i recognized that what i had been feeling all those years was fear and anxiety in the boarding school system. At boarding school you either have to blend in or you are dead meat. BS is a form of living in a cult. The principal and the teachers and their prefects hand out the favors and punishments all day and all night. There is no respite. You have to follow the rules, no room for individuality. I really do not like boarding school and am still recovering from it. Please visit me at

    1. Sorry to hear this…but not at all surprised. I was there ages 8 to 13 and it left me with a lifelong loathing of authority figures who couldn’t care less about you as a person, just something on a checklist. They are everywhere.

  12. Pingback: How was your childhood? | Broadside

  13. ihatedittoo

    I hope you Ladies don’t mind a chap joining in, but having read your comments it just feels so good to know there are others. I boarded aged 7.5- 17yo, i hated it. I appreciate the good intention, but feel the cost to me was far too great. My most noticiable (to me) hangover is an absolute distrust of authority of any sort. Fortunatly, i have a wife who seems to understand the need to hold hands/ touch at unexpected moments. I wonder if any of you keep a copy of ‘IF’ at home ? Best wishes.

  14. Lorraine Rock

    Interesting, I was at BS from 10-11 for 7 years, all through the British Grammar School system. I actually became a Prefect, and have always enjoyed being an authority figure. ( As I said before I am Bossy!). I worked in healthcare, and always liked taking care of people.( I adored being a mother) and eventually became a Director at Health Canada. All of this to preface the fact that I too have a distrust of authority figures, its almost a love/hate thing actually. I want their approval, but despise them for being deficient!

    1. Prefect! Very impressive.

      The one thing I did really appreciate — and still do — was seeing women in leadership roles because there were no men. That instilled in me the conviction that’s what women do, and must do. Very different perspective than many women I’ve met since, and men.

  15. David

    very interesting and I connected with this article. I was sent off at age 5 turning 6 – way too young. A necessary evil I suppose as my parents were missionaries in Nigeria. The earlier generation were sent to Collingwood Ontario and only saw their parents every 4 years. So I guess I was fortunate to see mine at Christmas and summer vacation. The rarely sharing your feelings part connected with me – at 55 I still have difficulty, And there were positives for sure for which I am grateful, mine was a mixed boarding school, boys and girls. Thanx again.

    1. That’s crazy young. It was very tough for me at eight.

      It’s good-sad to hear that others come out with similar challenges emotionally. How could you not? You spent your childhood surrounded by strangers — in residence and classroom — and confiding in people was neither encouraged nor even very smart in many instances. So we’re learning late(r.)

    2. Fannie

      David, My husband was put in boarding school in Venezuela, a similar story to yours. He was only 6 going home for Christmas ,summer, & furloughs. His parents were very good at keeping in touch. They got a letter once a week. They knew they were loved.
      He cried himself to sleep sometimes, but he will never say anything negative about it besides missing his parents. One brother of theirs is very bitter. But 3 are supposed fine.
      Anyhow I feel like he may have some things mentioned in this article. I have never looked this up until now. I think the biggest thing is attachments to others. Have you noticed this in yourself? If you were completely honest? I value this from your perspective as a man and your particular situation.

      1. I think it’s very difficult if you have been sent to live with strangers as a child, which is what boarding school is. Then you’re subject to their endless rules and regulations without the comfort of being loved, cuddled and comforted, as most kids are within their family.

        Yes, I think it can affect one’s later ability or willingness to be emotionally intimate. You are also subject to bullying by other children — and you can’t escape “home” because school is also where you live. I remember the lack of privacy and it drove me mad. I have no doubt it affected me long-term; I dislike many de facto authority figures and have not enjoyed dealing with them in other situations. They have no interest in your well-being, only in your obedience. I am quite sure this not-great attitude comes out of this sort of early experience.

  16. Lorraine Rock

    Interesting point about the “why” of sending children to B.School. Ostensibly, my sister (13) and I were sent because my Dad was off to the Middle East for work, and my mother was going to London to live with her her mother. My mother also thought we would get a better education – which was actually true! a sub-text was that all my cousins were at boarding school – it was the thing to do!
    As for me, I felt abandoned, I could not understand why I couldn’t just stay with my mother and grandmother. (According to my mother I begged to go with my sister! Well safe to say I changed my mind, but the die was cast!)

    1. It’s a weird thing. I agree, I also got an excellent education — learned how to study for hours on end (as we had to, every day), but at a fairly high emotional cost.

      But to this day you wonder why your parents just didn’t want you around!

      1. Lorraine Rock

        I also have never understood why she left me there after I was bullied (so badly that one of the perpetrators was expelled!) and expected me to “live” with one of my abusers for the next 5 years!

  17. Lorraine Rock

    Funnily enough this person contacted me recently, all sweetness and light, sending me a letter with an affectionate salutation at the end. I guess it is true that “Victims remember, Victors forget”. I am sure that she has no idea of what her actions did to me.

  18. I’m curious–what age is considered too young? My sons attend a school (not boarding) where many children go on to boarding school for high school. I’m keeping them here to go locally–but seems like even teen years would be crucial years to have that parental interaction, despite the ups and downs?

    1. I think it’s really between you and your kids. Some kids thrive away and others do not. I suspect that having your parents near by would be better….I lived with my father ages 14 to 19 (after boarding school) and am glad I did.

  19. rosiemay80uk

    Have you read Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry? He has a lot to say about his time at boarding school and does so in the painfully British and awkward way he has with words. I’m listening to the audio book.

  20. I too attended boarding school. I wonder if i want my son to go through that as well. Food and drink were extremely importance. We became so conditioned at 5pm to head over to the dining hall. Ah, such were the times

    1. We only ate when someone else gave it to us, and then whatever they had decided. I still (!) remember what we ate on Wednesday nights when those with friends could escape out for a meal — the rest of us got chicken with cranberry sauce. Oy. Food and drink were indeed very important;I remember the huge dark green basket that contained our daily ration of after school cookies.

  21. This is spot on. I attended a Male only boarding school from age 10 to 18. All the upsides are great and you add more to them as you grow older. I learned how to cook, I automatically arrange my apartment before I go out and just remain responsible every time.
    It messed me up a little bit though when it comes to relationships. Male only school is okay but Male only boarding school is a little extreme, for me anyway. I learned a lot but if I ever have kids, I won’t send them to single boarding school. Great blog

    1. Thanks for weighing in…This post seems to have really struck a chord, as it remains one of the most-read of my 1400+ posts.

      I agree that there are benefits — you learn self-reliance and independence, for sure. But, yes, being surrounded by peers of your gender, some of them deeply unhappy and with nowhere to flee, is not fun.

  22. Charles Tapson

    Just come across the blog and all the comments – which I am going to have to read later! But in case it is of interest/assistance you may wish to look at the Boarding Concern website – – where there is a wealth of information on the topic. I can recommend the “standard work” on the subject too – The Making of Them by Nick Duffield. And if you are wanting to delve deeper take a look at the books published by John Bowlby on Attachment Theory – the summary by Jeremy Holmes is an easy introduction. Hope this shows a new light on boarding and its diverse consequences – I boarded from 1961-1973 in the UK as I had military parents.

    1. Thanks…I didn’t know about any of these resources.

      You spent a lot of your life in boarding. Wow. I spent ages 8,9,12 and 13. Which was quite enough! I lived at home in Grades 6 and 7, which helped.

      I appreciate this!

  23. This article is timely for me as a former boarding schoolboy from the age of ten. In fact, read my latest novel that addresses this very subject: ” The Joy of Frustratia” available from and on Kindle since November 2013. For those who look back in dismay at such schooldays, the story offers a special ‘justice’ for the treatment given by such so-called places of education.

    Archer Swift

  24. Emily

    I went to a Catholic boarding school at the age of five, and stayed for two years. My sister, who is four years older than me, was also a boarder at this convent in Devon. I was the youngest in the school when I got there. At the time I was far less emotional than my sister, i didn’t really understand what was going on, and I immediately got in to trouble when I arrived, and continued to be ‘naughty’ throughout. I didn’t miss my parents so much as my beloved brother, who was my playmate and my protector and my main source of affection. But this event was just the tip of the iceberg, my childhood was riddled with traumatic events – my mother was mentally ill, my father was weak and eventually became an alcoholic after my mother died when I was ten. At school, though obviously intelligent, I underperformed, finding learning incredibly difficult and becoming foggy headed and anxious when it came to absorbing information and retaining it. Exams were a nightmare. In my adult life I struggled with the same thing in various jobs, and it is only because I am creative, and perceptive that i have survived in employment, and now have a good job in publishing. My relationships have all been disastrous. I am bound to repeat destructive emotional patterns, not stopping until i receive the rejection response I know and love. I struggle with anger. One thing I am, contrary to what might be expected, is loving and affectionate. Almost too much sometimes. But I am afraid of intimacy too…a strange paradox. I don’t want anyone to find out what a worthless and ugly person I really am. Is it early boarding that has done this? Hard to tell in the sea of trauma behind me. I suspect it weakened my equipment for sure. Equipment I would badly need as my life went on.

    1. Five. Five?! Dear Emily, how could a tiny little girl possibly understand what was happening to her? It was tough for me at eight, but I also liked the rules and structure and sense of security for a few years.

      You’ve survived!!

      Boarding school is a very weird environment, certainly for a small child learning how to love and be loved. I have other friends who have intimacy issues as a result as well — how could you not, having been surrounded by strangers all day and night for years?

      It sounds as though your family let you down as well, so trusting anyone would be very challenging, and any workplace requires that. I get it! Have had some similar patterns in my own family and seen that in myself. But patterns can, and must, change if they serve you poorly. Intimacy is unfamiliar and frightening for many people — boarding school or not. But what sort of life can we ever have without it?

      If you have never (?) done some serious and intensive therapy, I urge you strongly to do so — today! Even the most expensive therapists often reduce their fees if money is very tight for you. Good therapy is often emotionally painful but extremely helpful, with a kind, wise helper, to finally take out these patterns, examine their root causes dispassionately (no shame or fear is worth the terrible cost it has exacted upon you!) — and come up with some new ones that work much better. It’s possible. I know. 🙂

  25. Mita Bajaj

    I don’t think so that all boarding schools are bad because I also studied in boarding school and i want to say that its life is amazing. I have done lots of fun and made last long friends. I am not agree with you that nobody care for your children. In my boarding school all teachers and supervisors are very co-operative and helpful. They loved us like their children. I have spent a lots of good time in boarding school.

    1. This is terrific. I don’t think all boarding schools are nasty. But my experience could have been happier, and many of the people reading that post agree.

      It may well be that people my age and those a few decades younger had very different experiences there.

  26. melissa

    Not only in Britain, as an Australian girl aged 4 I was the youngest in my boarding school, not there for long as I got chicken pox and my parents had to take me home.
    Like you I rarely cry, rarely share my feeling, can have a vicious tongue. I eat too fast (otherwise miss out on seconds) . In my case I am not affectionate (except with my children) and I rebel against authority. I had to stand on a chair to wash my underwear in a big trough that we all shared to clean our teeth. I got slapped on the knuckles for not eating my broad beans and forced to finish them. Most of all I really really do not like nuns!! I still can not even look at broad beans. On the positive side I have been able to fit in easily and adapt.

    1. Thanks for sharing this….four?!!!!!! Cannot even begin to imagine.

      I got sent to my room for (yes) laughing too loudly and being “unladylike”. You can imagine how loudly I now laugh…:-)

  27. This is such an interesting blog – and all the comments too. I was struck by how several people said that they found it hard to be affectionate – apart from with their own kids. This is something I can really relate to. But I’ve found that over the years I’ve been able to be more affectionate with other people too, but it was something that started with my kids. Basically my kids sort of taught me my emotions! I just hope this hasn’t messed them up too much. I went to boarding school 9-18 years old, sometimes I just saw my parents in the holidays and other times I saw them every 3 or 4 weeks. Understatement of the year alert – I wasn’t very good at boarding 😉

    1. Thanks…and thanks for sharing your experience.

      I basically had no clue what familiar or domestic intimacy looked like — I basically saw my mother on weekends and my father rarely. It’s hard not to feel smothered and claustrophobic sometimes when someone is simply being normal. 🙂

  28. Nancy

    I lived at boarding school at ages 7 and 8, lived with my parents at age 9, then lived with relatives at 10, 11 & 12, lived at home 13, 14 & 15, then boarding school again at 16 & 17. I don’t recall these decisions were explained to me. I am now 65 and still suffer from anxiety, depression, issues with intimacy, trust and authority figures! I mostly want to say how validating it is to know that others have had similar experiences and are living with similar consequences. For most/all of my life I wondered what was wrong with me. In recent weeks I have found information on Boarding School Syndrome out of the UK and now this blog. This feels like a new lease on life. I’m not a misfit, I’m a product of being abandoned and not being nurtured, comforted or touched. I speculate that my parents are narcissistic. I am an only child. I have spent thousands of dollars on counseling and still have literal pain in my chest. Can you recommend any therapists in either Edmonton, AB or Nanaimo, BC? who are familiar with this issue and with narcissism? I am so curious about living life without this pain in my chest.

    1. This is very painful to read…and not unfamiliar to me. I only lived at home in Grades 6 and 7 and for my final three years of high school.

      I have little doubt about your thoughts on this as I feel this way as well about my parents’ decision.

      I live in NY and have no contacts at all in those two cities. You might try (?) calling your local/provincial medical societies (i.e. which license psychologists and psychiatrists) and asking them for anyone they might know. I would also urge you to do a massive Google search — and try all local universities and medical schools; there may well be staff working on those issues or teaching them.

      Any qualified mental health professional is very familiar with narcissism and the effects it has on children who lived it, and might still do, so that should (?) be something you can deal with…

      There are a few self-help books that are worth looking at. All 3 are on my bookshelf: 1) Adult Children of Abusive Parents, Steven Farmer; 2) Toxic Parents, Susan Forward, 3) Children of the Self-Absorbed, Nina Brown — which focuses specifically on people whose parents were/are narcissistic.

      Your comment is very sad and I hope (!!) you can find some help and solace. To me, one of the greatest obstacles is that so very few people have a clue what we went through! You can find self-help groups for virtually every other challenge in life but I have yet to hear of one for people whose parents — esp. those with money — mostly dumped them into other people’s laps.

      I will say the only way I have been able to re-frame it and just move on through life is knowing that both of my parents came from parents themselves with very little ability/interest in nurture. People can’t often give much of what they did not get themselves.

      1. Lorraine Rock

        Your last comment is very interesting. Both of my parents were raised in non-traditional homes. My mother was raised by her much older Aunt and Uncle, though her mother lived in the same house. Her father had died a couple of weeks before her birth and her mother had been crippled by post-partum depression (as we now call it). My father lost his mother at about age 8. While she was sick he and his younger brothers were sent to live with an Aunt, and returned home 2 years later to be told their mother was dead, and they had a “new mother”. None of the adults in these children’s’ lives had a clue about parenting, obviously. I am sometimes surprised that my parents could function at all! Both of them were lovely people, outwardly affectionate, but, in retrospect, terribly narcissistic. It was obvious to both my sister and I that their love was conditional on the fact that we had to fit the roles that they expected of us. We were accessories to their family fantasy, as they tried to create something they had never had.
        I remember the first time I went into therapy, when I was contemplating divorce, I was irritated that the therapist kept reverting to my relationship with my mother, rather than the one with my husband. I was quite annoyed when she tried to bring me to understand how my mother had abandoned me ( at age 10) in Boarding school, and then again when she failed to rescue me from terrible bullying. I had a mental image of my perfect loving mother that was at odds with the reality of my upbringing.

      2. It can take a long, long time in therapy to really start looking at this stuff. Denial is very strong, as is loyalty as is our need to be resilient and not keep focusing on ourselves as any sort of victim. Which is terrific — but also denies what we did survive along the way.

      3. Lorraine Rock

        So much of what is said in this blog resonates with me, yet I am reluctant to accept that the many relationship problems I have experienced can be blamed solely on the 6 years of my childhood spent in BS. I am 67 years old now, and it is horrifying to me to think that the decision to send me away has had such a dramatic effect on my life. I agree, I really hate to be a victim, yes I am a survivor, and my children tell me I am a wonderful loving mother. Yet I can see the toll that my marriages and divorces have had on them too. How do we stop the cycle?

      4. Not being someone trained in mental health, I am no expert!

        I have no doubt at all that the time spent, as a young child, away from “normal” family life (not to mention the weirdness of sharing one’s life 24/7 with strangers for years) has quite an effect on one’s appetite for and ability to negotiate intimacy.

        I bet someone somewhere has studied this more formally…

    2. I commented previously (see above) and am grateful for your reference to a pain in your chest – which may seem odd! I have suffered from a similar “issue” for approaching fifty years and still recall being taken to the doctor who proclaimed it was due to “growing pains”. How encouraging decades later that I am still growing, or perhaps not! Always comes on at night, enough to wake me up, and I had assumed a cough had triggered it as it is most irregular, but occasionally very painful. And I had thought I was reasonably relaxed, again perhaps not. I wonder how many others suffer in their bodies for their childhood past? And if you ever find an answer as to its cause do please enlighten me!

      Best wishes.

  29. In 1971 was sent away to boarding school in the UK at the age of 8 and served the full 10-year stretch. At the time I would have told you that it was a benign experience: I was not physically bullied, beaten or abused by teachers nor otherwise tortured in the fashion of Tom Brown’s School Days, and played rugby, acted in plays and got away with rule-breaking without my parents ever hearing about it. I generally only went home (30 miles distant) when I had to, initially because the transition from one setting to the other was too painful to make, and latterly because home ceased to be a place where I felt I belonged. After college I never went back home, but emigrated. I have lived in the US permanently since 1991. I worked for 10 years in NYC managing job training non-profits, and then, following my father’s death and my own nervous breakdown, became a pediatric oncology nurse in Jackson, Mississippi.

    Now, at the age of 52, I find myself struggling once again with recurring depression and trying to save my marriage from imploding around long-term issues of intimacy and emotional insularity. Everything – EVERYTHING – traces back to those 10 years of boarding school.

    I am so glad that I found this discussion and the comments in it. In particular it is interesting to see BS discussed primarily from a female point of view, and also in the context of the US and Canada. This is the first place that I have seen ex-boarders talk not just about being emotionally closed, but also to add that they are able to be more open with children than with adults. I have found that not only am I much more comfortable in the company of children, but that I am fiercely protective of them, especially from emotional pain. Adults? They can take care of themselves – they’re adults!

    The other interesting theme to me here is the distrust of authority voiced by several people. As a child of privilege it seemed odd to me that I not only tend to distrust authority figures (although in Mississippi that might seem more of a rational choice – I’m no Tea Party enthusiast), but that I also have a visceral dislike for the wealthy and privileged. My teenage son attends a private high school. It is not a boarding school, but I still feel very uneasy when I am on campus. And, on the occasions that I have visited the gated communities where his class-mates live, I have found myself becoming unreasonably angry with the displays of wealth.
    In case you have not come across it already I would recommend the book “The Making of Them” by Nick Duffell. It examines the causes of boarding school syndrome and goes a long way to explain why boarding school survivors are the way they are.

    1. What a challenging second career you’ve chosen, though!

      It’s a weird thing to reflect much later on the effect this had…

      The whole notion of daily emotional intimacy and trust of those around you…huh?! I had no idea what that really meant. I was lucky enough (sort of) to attend public co-ed high school from Grade 10 to 13. I was bullied for 3 years by boys (which was nasty) but at least I made good friends — one of whom we’re visiting this weeks, decades later.

      I also have little patience for people who are or behave entitled. None, actually.

      Thanks for commenting.

  30. Lewis

    I was put into boarding school at age five and continued on until I finished high school. It has definitely made me a very resilient and independent person. I have made a ton of friends from all over the country, which is cool. It was hard in the beginning, but eventually I got used to it and had a lot of fun.

    For the past three years I’ve been staying at home. It gets very boring at times, in hostels there is always someone to kill time with. I fail miserably at communicating with my parents and very often fail to understand each other. They expect me to be a certain person, someone who is culturally & fundamentally more like them. I can’t wait to graduate and move out which will be a year.

    All in all boarding school has been fun, but I fail to develop attachment to family and the notion of home that many people around me do which makes me feel like a misfit.

    1. This sounds familiar. I can talk to a rock…but my own family? Not so much.

      It’s not at all surprising to read your comment, but a little sad; after all your parents made the choice to send you away so they might (?) try harder to make you feel welcome at home now.

      Hope it gets better!

  31. ihatedittoo

    I have posted here once before, It helps to know there are others.

    In response to comments above, what really troubles me is that i’m 60 and i still feel it now.
    Nobody responded to my question- did they have a copy of ‘IF’…..Must be a male thing.
    Read an interesting comment a while ago on the subject. Brother to sister :- we fit in anywhere, but belong nowhere…. Rings a bell.
    Best wishes.

    1. Lorraine Rock

      To Ihatedittoo, I am a few years older than you are, and you are not alone. I still dream of school, actual re-enactments of daily life there. I have told people of the privations we experienced, and they are incredulous. One example – my sister was inclined to gain weight on carbohydrates, so the boarding school diet was horrible for her. My mother would send up fruit baskets for her, and the Matron would use the baskets to supplement everyone’s diet. She said that it was to teach “sharing”, but at the cost of my mother’s wallet and my sister’s health- she gained a lot of weight and developed adult onset diabetes at aged 20!

  32. karen devereux

    1970’s :I remember crying myself to sleep nightly for weeks when I was dropped off at boarding school aged 9, with a sister aged 8 to care and look out for ( my mother had made it quite clear – “you are older and will be the mother figure for your sister in my absence”). They then flew off to live in Germany ( and also make the deadline for their skiing holiday).
    My sister and I felt abandoned, and wondered what we had done so wrong to deserve this punishment. My father was an officer in the British Army and they had said it would be better for our education and they “had no choice” this is what the Army had said had to happen?? I left behind my cat, my bedroom – always shared with my sister and my life as I knew it. Nothing would ever be the same….

    I only saw ( waved) to my sister at Sunday Mass as I was in the upper school and a driveway of 500m + separated the two school areas – and this was no-man’s land – and we were not allowed to meet half way. Now aged 52 I look back and realise that I had no connection with anything, my life was just an existence… My sister and I are still in touch; I visited her from Australia last year after 10 years (she is in the UK) and one of the first things she said when I mentioned our parents was – “they abandoned us”. I saw the sadness and hollowness in her eyes that I had felt for years.

    Made to stand on stools till midnight for coughing or a giggle after lights out at 7.00pm was one punishment, whilst lashings with a leather belt behind the knees were another. At age 10 I remember jumping onto the back of a nun and biting her as she beat my friend; maybe this is why I repeated this action on my father during a home visit when he started to wallop my younger brother for something he had done. Perhaps my fathers lack of being a full time parent reduced his tolerance to small acts of stupidity. I had seen so many punishments, that I abhorred the violent outbreaks and the only thing I knew was to fight or flight. All in all I can say boarding school has/had ruined my life.

    I now have a son aged 21 and said from day one he would never leave my side, every up and down would be a family experience that would shape him.
    I had a flashback one night when I saw him lying all snug with his favourite teddies in bed. He was waiting for his nightly cuddle and a story. He was 9; the same age I was dumped at boarding school, except I had no teddy or toys – “they might be lost, and weren’t required” my parents had said. I realised that I had been deprived of all the things normal children take for granted – my parents, my friends – my pet cat Puff, my room and so many other things. After reading his story I cuddled and kissed him goodnight. I returned to my room and sobbed my heart out. I even contemplated other things, but knew I had to be strong for him.

    I am an high achiever, business owner, published author and happily married to a wonderful man (3rd) that has helped me to come out of the past and live in the present. I have lived on antidepressants for over 25 years (up until now) and seen several psychologists until he persuaded me to face my demons and what was the root of my problems. I had before this not known what real love or intimacy was – starved of this from an early age.
    I am so pleased to have found this forum – it has helped me get closer to understanding why I am like I am and that importantly “It is not my fault”. Thank you

    1. So sorry your experience was so rough.

      Mine was much milder but it is definitely life-changing to live among strangers who care naught for you at such a young age. It’s had lifelong effects on me as well.

      Thanks for sharing this.

  33. Dboss200

    Hi, thank you for the insight into your boarding school experience and how its effected you. It is just what I needed to understand.

    I’m dating a girl that went to boarding school from the the age of 6-17. Her parents were too busy with business and never raised her. She shares the same personality traits as you (cold, emotionless etc etc).

    I never went to boarding and I can sense there is a huge difference between us. I came from a very loving family and I show her love and she feels uncomfortable with it.

    She very successful in her career as that is a given from what I learn about those that go to boarding school.

    She keeps me on my toes and I never actually know what she’s feeling.

    I will continue to see her but I just don’t know what the future will bring.

    Thought I’d share my little story 🙂

    1. Well, I am not sure many people would describe me as cold and emotionless! 🙂

      But, yes, in boarding school, you are forced from a very early (far too early) age to keep your emotions in check and unshared — because no one cares! Not a great way to grow up. Being surrounded by strangers 24/7 is exhausting. NO privacy, ever, anywhere. Sometimes having people around me feels claustrophobic as a result.

      My husband is like you in this respect. He’s doing OK, 15 years together (so far!) But it does take some extra understanding and compassion. We were not raised as you were so it’s inevitable we may behave and think differently as a result.

      1. Dboss200

        Thank you for your reply it helped A LOT! 🙂

        Sorry, I was reading something else about these traits.

        I’m happy to know that you’ve been together for 15 years (so far) Hahahah.

        I’m prepared to understand her and put in the work.

        I’ll keep you posted!

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