For Clinical Practitioners

This section has been put together for practitioners and mental health professionals by psychotherapist Nick Duffell.

Until very recently, the effects of boarding education on children have been largely ignored.

Despite frequent references in English popular literature to the agonies experienced by children at boarding schools and to the repressed and secretive adults they can become, the problem has gone entirely unnoticed by the medical and psychological professions.

There are several reasons for this. In Britain, boarding education carries high social status and is therefore considered a privilege worthy of the considerable financial investment parents make. The interested parties, therefore, have been unlikely to question this social investment, while the children, laden with expectations, put on their ‘brave faces’.

As a result, problems tend to resurface only in later life. However, former boarders have expertly learned to function, to show the world only their facade – their Strategic Survival Personality. So the severe difficulties they have in intimate relationships, or with workaholism, for example, can get discounted or be difficult to pin-point – let alone heal.

Since the publication of Nick Duffell’s book The Making of Them, 2000, (widely-endorsed, including the British Medical Journal), Boarding School Survival and the Strategic Survival Personality are becoming increasingly recognised as problematic and specific psychological phenomena with a widespread prevalence in Britain.

However, working with boarding school survivors is challenging and requires specialised knowledge and skills. Former boarders are amongst the most difficult clients to work with and rarely present for therapy, typically seeking help during acute crisis then retreating in denial, once the worst has passed.

Boarding school survivors usually present as functioning and can skilfully reinvent themselves. The problems is that their skills are dedicated not to further adaptation or change, but towards the continuation of survival techniques. In this way, they often elude or outwit their therapists.