Dr. Joy Schaverien’s Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child takes an honest and powerful look at the long term psychological impact boarding schools have on children. Having spent my teen years in a boarding school, I was particularly fascinated by her observations, based on years of counseling and diagnosing adults who attended boarding schools as children. Rather than try to summarize the book (there’s just way too much), I want to share a few of my reactions as a former boarding school student. You can read a strong summary of the book’s content and a list of the many symptoms and issues that can result in boarding school experience here.
Over the last decade, I have become increasingly aware of just how widespread and prevalent sexual and physical abuse was in all of the boarding schools run by the mission my family was a part of, which has been a horrifying realization. Dr. Schaverien primarily interacts with former boarding school students from other systems and organizations, and it was shocking to realize through her research that this sexual and physical abuse seems to be a common reality in ALL boarding schools. The combination of predators being attracted to environments where children are cut off from their parents most of the year and dangerous students with inadequate supervision around younger students consistently creates environments where abuse flourishes.
Dr. Schaverien deals with the question of why children do not report abuse throughout her book, which I appreciated deeply. She points out a combination of factors; for the child who does not have the words to express what is going on, it is a confusing situation. Children think their experience is normal; they may not like it, but it must be normal because it is what they know. Adding to that is the knowledge that their parents sent them, reinforcing the idea that this is both normal and the adults in their life are okay with it (after all, to a young child’s logic, how could their parents possibly not know?). Consequently, the abuse is normalized, and even minimized – “I didn’t like what happened to me, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happened to so-and-so.” What I was particularly struck by is her observation that it is typically around forty years of age that people will begin to recognize or speak out about the abuse they received as a child; often times as they see their own children growing up and realize just how little and unprotected they themselves were at that age and finally begin to realize just how wrong the treatment was.
That jumped out at me; I’m 41. It has really been the last five years that I have wrestled with what I witnessed as a teen and what I can do about it now. As a student at a boarding school I witnessed things that made me deeply uncomfortable and upset – but did not know how to react. It wasn’t until my early twenties as I was studying to be a teacher, and then youth pastor. taking classes on creating safe environments and protecting children from abuse that I realized many of the things I witnessed were legally considered abuse.
I found her comments and observations on former boarding school students relationships with others, the tendency to be closed relationally, abandonment issues, the sexual confusion resulting from growing up in schools forbidding any kind of physical contact (even healthy, necessary contact), issues with food, and a whole host of other ramifications to be incredibly fascinating, and enlightening in what I have seen in my fellow classmates. I think her book is critical reading for anyone who has been a boarding school student, or who has had family members attend boarding school at some point in their childhood. It is written for psychologists to give insight on how to work with boarding school students, so it is not a light read, however it is incredibly beneficial and makes a great contribution to a segment of the population that is largely ignored.