25 November 2013

On Working with Boarding School Survivors

By Amanda Williamson, Counselling in Exeter

Boarding school survivors?

To whom does this term apply? Would that be anybody who went to boarding school and was abused? Is it anybody who went to boarding school and was distressed at being separated from the family and home? Does it refer to everybody who went to boarding school?

The term has emotive and probably contentious connotations so I shall proceed with referring to those that attended boarding school as ex-boarders. The workshop I attended referred to the subject matter as "The Boarding School Experience" and was run by local counsellor/psychotherapist Jane Barclay, herself an ex-boarder and a director of Boarding Concern.

I was keen to go and learn more about the boarding school experience as I have worked with some ex-boarders. Certainly, I have found anecdotally that the impact of that particular education format has left an undeniable impact on some in respect of self-esteem, the insistence of denying vulnerability and/or having difficulties with intimacy (all intertwined).

I attended the workshop with an open-mind. I have never set foot inside a boarding school. I had my prejudices and sketchy preconceptions based on Enid Blyton books (sardine sandwiches and ginger beer at midnight). I was interested to hear about ex-boarders' insights and really learn about their experiences.

Of the 12 delegates, all of whom were either qualified, or trainee counsellors, 3 of us had not attended boarding school. Of the remainder, all had had a negative experience, apart from one who had had a very positive experience. It was agreed that it was good to have the presence of somebody who had had a positive experience to add perspective to the emotive topic.

The workshop was held over 2 days, split by a 5 week interval. The first day we looked at how a child might adapt to the boarding school existence and how they might construct a Strategic Survival Personality. This consist of the ways of coping with the separation from home and family at an early age. The child identifies with power and independence and disowns their vulnerability and dependence.  This way of existing then continues on into adult life.

We then watched a video of a documentary by the BBC in 1994 called "The Making of Them". It was watching this that evoked a very strong emotional response in me. I was so overwhelmed by what I saw that I fought tears. I struggled with my own perception of the parent-child bond and how my intuition informs me. Keeping an open mind became more and more unmanageable. The documentary itself is about a number of young boys and watches them and their families as they are sent off to boarding school. We see some of them blatantly suffering emotionally, and others, more stoic, and "grown-up" and having already started the construction of a Strategic Survival Personality. There were many poignant moments. One was when you see one of the mothers at home, denying any hurt that her son may be encountering, stating how good for him the experience is, whilst dotingly stroking the pet dog planted firmly on her lap. Also, one of the stoic little boys, convincing us (or himself?) at how good it is to be so grown up, just like an adult...then proceeds to talk about the red clown nose on his birthday cake in a manner completely befitting of a very young child, juxtaposing what he is telling himself and the reality of his vulnerability.

Afterwards, we split into groups to discuss the film and how we noticed how the children and parents managed their feelings. I burst into tears, and felt an utter fraud. I never went to boarding school. How could I find this so upsetting? This is something I struggled with for a week or so, and went on to examine - what is going on for me in all this? On the one hand, I want to retain a genuinely open mind and not judge the experience of any ex-boarder. Yet there I was having a very passionate response. Every cell of my body was screaming to me that it is wrong to send away a precious child to a school where yes, they may be looked after well, and have a great education and lots of friends (although many delegates at the workshop did not have such experiences), but, WHERE IS THE LOVE?

By the second day, 5 weeks on, I had calmed down quite a bit. We shared our journeys since the last workshop, and most people had had interesting and powerful process.

We talked more about the Strategic Survival Personality and how this translates to character traits, about how difficult it can be to change those traits, about examining whether they are appropriate or helpful traits in adulthood.

We looked at how the young child might learn to deal with the separation, and and what they might be missing out on in being sent away from the home. We also looked extensively at the older boarder, the one who is sent away at age 13, and the effects of being sent away by their parents, the development of sexuality without the safety of flirtation with the opposite sex parent (not restricted to boarders of course).

Throughout the course, I recognised elements of my convent grammar school education in some of the criticisms of the boarding schools. I was not a boarder, but I was affected by a heavily Catholic flavour to the education process. Sanitary towels were bricks that we pinned to our underwear. Our uniforms were the most unflattering, sexuality-repressing garments imaginable (long a-line skirt and deck-chair blazer and faun socks - gorgeous!). The nuns were cold and sometimes cruel. I could identify with some of the issues that the ex-boarders had to face.

Most of all though, I realised that the fact that my mother left the family when I was 13 meant that there were parallels between my experience and that of female boarders sent to board at the same age. Perhaps I was there for this subconscious reason.

Working with Ex-Boarders

So how about working with ex-boarders? Well, much like my GamCare training, which was not about "which technique to use with people with gambling issues", this course was not about "how to counsel ex boarders". The intention, as far as I am aware, was to equip us with insights and awareness around the potential issues that may be relevant to working with this issue. This was very much accomplished.

After the workshop I feel that I have gained wisdom around the issues, rather than information and techniques. Wisdom is so much easier to integrate into the counselling process.

Amanda Williamson Reg MBACP - Counselling in Exeter

Amanda Williamson in a counsellor working in Central Exeter. Please click here for more information.


on the way said...

Thank you for sharing your experience of the workshop and your process of working through your own reasons for being there.
I lean towards the idea of the strategic survival personality being more than just for boarders, but for children with distant, unfeeling and stoic parents who are present physically but not emotionally. It also fits very well with my experience of bullying from an early age too, working out any which way to survive. Those which now earn me a label (diagnosis) of an avoidant personality disorder when really, I have become the way I am just to survive and today am hardly able to do that.
I'm sorry, I ramble.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate your input and perspective.
There's just one thing I don't agree with. You don't ramble. I always find what you write lucid and intelligent :-)

Christina said...

Thank you for your interesting post. I was an child of expatriate parents in the ex Colonies in the 60's and 70''s . I did not attend boarding school but my brother did, my male cosins did, as did many of my male friends and I married an ex boarder who boarded from the age of 6 - 18 at an exclusive Public School along with his brother. The consequences of his upbringing, or lack of upbringing thereof, for our children and myself have been devastating. While he is successful, highly academic, witty and outwardly confident he is incapable of expressing affection. When our children were young they were his 'play mates' a source of tremendous 'fun' so in those days the issues were not so evident. It eas when they started to individuate and entered into their adolescent years he completely lost interest in them as they no longer wanted a 'fun' dad. He didn't know what to offer them apart from being a 'fun chum'. I, meanwhile have always felt as if I were a blend of mother and matron. When he needs me he expects me to be available but when he's distracted, busy and things are going well for him I cease to exist. The survival personality exists, I've been surrounded by it all my life.

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