Effect of boarding school life on a child’s psyche

What effects does boarding school have on a child’s mental and emotional development, future relationships and life interactions? Psychotherapist CHRIS HART explains.

Bubbling insecurity

But being away from home also creates a layer of insecurity, especially in children who start boarding school young. So a decision to send your children to boarding school needs to be taken carefully.

Because once your child sets off to boarding school, their whole life will take a different path.

That’s because, however well boarding schools might look after their pupils, children sent away to school are being separated from the only people in the world who love them unconditionally - their parents. Children need that, and teachers, however good they may be, can’t replace a parent’s unconditional love.

To cope with living without love, boarding school children often construct a ‘strategic survival personality,’ including for example, a ‘home self’ and a ‘boarding school self.’ Once formed, this survival personality is hard to put aside, and has permanent effects on the child’s future adult life.

On the outside, boarding school children appear competent and confident. Inside, they’re often inhibited and insecure. And for many, that insecurity lasts the rest of their lives.

The boarding school syndrome

So there’s a noticeable set of traits in adults, especially men, who went to boarding school. Sometimes called ‘boarding school syndrome’.

It includes:

1. A reduced ability to form and sustain relationships

2. A tendency to hide vulnerabilities behind a confident appearance

3. Depression and anxiety

4. Problems with intimacy

5. Anger issues are also common

6. Substance abuse

7. A fear of abandonment.

8. Struggle to show emotion.

When you cry in boarding school, the people who come to your aid are essentially strangers. And are much more likely to say ‘stop crying!’ than to offer help.

Children in boarding school feel the watching eye of their peers all the time, and realise that displays of emotion will be disproved of. And that eventually leads to the person who says to their partner:

‘There’s nothing wrong with me - you’re just too emotional.’ Ex-boarders don’t behave in an appropriate manner when they’re upset.

They didn’t develop a good language for their emotions, and no longer express them - and often haven’t since that first day at school.

Performance based acceptance Vs unconditional acceptance

Children need approval and acceptance to develop their sense of self-worth, and in a boarding school, that’s performance based rather than the unconditional acceptance children experience with their parents.

And no matter how loved they feel at home during the holidays, that’s only a temporary experience. Especially as peer pressures mean that boarding school comes to feel like ‘real life,’ while home is just time off.

Boarding children’s experience of performance based acceptance goes on into adulthood. Where for example, they tend to enter into relationships for the wrong reasons.

Seeking to be accepted and loved, rather than developing relationships based on mutual support. They also often grow up to be workaholics, looking for approval and acceptance for ‘doing well.’

‘Idealised’ home life

Many children in boarding schools feel a sense of abandonment. They’re nostalgic for an ‘idealised’ home life, and feel lonely and uncared for.

Many can’t escape the feeling that they’re boarding because their parents don’t want them. Young children especially don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with this sense of loss.

These feelings of abandonment often last a lifetime, and so ex-boarders often feel insecure in their relationships.

Constantly watching for signs that their partner is also going to abandon them. They often become controlling - trying to minimise their partners work and social lives - and watching obsessively for the slightest signs of infidelity.

Boarding school life can never be casual like home. It’s stressful, 24 hours a day, and lacks emotional support, personal attention and validation. Many sensitive children never entirely adjust to the rule driven environment and always feel out of place.

The bullying effect

Boarding children grow more distant from their parents, and often find it impossible to confide in them. Even when they’re suffering bullying or abuse.

Boarding schools simply cannot completely supervise every child, every minute of the day and night, and so physical, emotional and sexual abuse is a constant danger.

You know how parents are currently concerned about the internet allowing bullies to pursue their children home via social media sites?

Bullying is always 24/7 in a boarding school.

Children in boarding schools often feel they can’t do anything about abuse, whatever form it takes. And feel they must silently bear it as the only way to survive. And this can have effects that last the rest of their lives.


Children who go to boarding school - especially when they’re very young - always remember their first day as a traumatic event.

They’re aware they have to adapt quickly. And feel a split between what they’re told they’re supposed to experience and what they’re actually feeling.

Children are actually very unhappy to lose their family, home, friends and pets. Everything they’ve ever had for their whole life has suddenly gone. They’re told that it’s called homesickness and ‘you’ll get over it soon’. Actually, it’s a major bereavement.

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boarding schoolchild’s mentalemotional development