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  • Writer's pictureJane Turner

Putting it Bluntly ... 8 is too young

Updated: Jun 25

I watched the ‘James Blunt - One Brit Wonder’ documentary last night and was left wishing it had come with one of those warnings that say ‘if you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme …’ To hear his mother laugh as she described sending her son to boarding school at the age of 8 as ‘normal’ was chilling and I fear may well have also been triggering for those who, knowingly or unknowingly, suffer from the psychological condition which is now referred to as ‘Boarding School Syndrome’.


There has been a lot written about this and I found Nick Duffell’s book ‘Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege’ exceptionally compelling, and as a therapist, enormously helpful. Amongst all the insightful words and moving personal accounts of the boarding school experience, one paragraph has remained indelibly imprinted:


‘Boarding involves the rupture of attachments in dependent youngsters, under an externally imposed ethos of self-reliance, not fitting their ongoing developmental needs’.

Those impacted by, but perhaps in denial of, the effects of being sent away at such a young age may well be quick to defend both their parent’s decision (perhaps with the best of intentions based on their own upbringing) and the experience itself (often referred to as ‘character building’). The reason why such a defence might be offered is because the alternative – that is to accept that perhaps it might not have been such a great decision – opens up a Pandora’s Box of painful feelings.


Another of Duffell’s contributions which clients have found really useful as they grapple with coming to terms with the impact of the deeply buried trauma, is the term ‘strategic survival personality’. This describes the construction of a personality that helps a child survive the boarding school experience. ‘I got used to it’ the ex-boarder will often say as they recount their experience. To this end the SSP is useful and perhaps even crucial.

The problem is that by the time the child leaves the school environment 10 years later, this constructed personality has become so entrenched that it is difficult to shed. ‘Why shed it?’ the ex-boarder may ask. And to some extent they have a point’. The SSP can be immensely skillful, and the learned duplicity produces excellent spies and diplomats. So too the ability to successfully repress not only the expression of fear but also emotion produces some of our country’s most effective Army officers. For them, the additional skills of staying one step ahead and anticipating danger are invaluable.


Then of course, there is the ability to win over your ‘audience’ through humour, a skill many have relied on to later form careers in entertainment. It maybe no coincidence that so many of our celebrated and anarchic comedians are boarding school survivors – they, like perhaps our politicians too, have been well-trained in the art of promoting the outer-self. The problem is that those skills aren’t particularly useful when it comes to the inter-personal stuff of life and can instead – and this is where the tragedy lies – inhibit their ability to forge and maintain fulfilling relationships. They still have their guard up. This means that, whilst outwardly accomplished, they are, in fact, inwardly impoverished and very sadly go on to lead a rather lonely existence just as they had, in truth, as a child.


And back to Blunt. Watching the documentary through the lens of a therapist, whilst upset to observe the emotional detachment (something both his parents describes as a family trait) I was also moved as I witnessed the prevailing of an enduring phenomenon, that being our innate ability to heal. James refers at one point, with well-honed defensive, disarming humour, to being ‘emotionally stunted’ and yet, through the poetry of his lyrics and melodies, it would seem that those emotions stubbornly refuse to be repressed. And for that we can be both thankful and hopeful.


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