Our early lives

A recent article in the Observer newspaper* by Alex Renton discusses the impact of the boarding school system on the UK’s political establishment. The article is referred to in July’s Therapy Today, which includes a commentary** on the psychological impact on young children of being uprooted from home and sent away to an alien environment and emotional isolation. The Therapy Today article is written by Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist. He, like Renton, describes himself as a boarding school survivor.

Duffell’s article makes a passing reference to ‘attachment theory’. The name most closely associated with the development of attachment theory is John Bowlby (1907 – 1990), a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had also had boarding school experience. Bowlby’s research indicated that separation from our primary caregivers in our early lives ultimately leads to detachment and therefore difficulty in forming relationships. Terms associated with this outcome include avoidance, anxiety, dismissiveness, resistance and fear.

The impact on the individual of separation from home life can be traumatic and enduring but also far-reaching (affecting relationships with future spouses, children and others). But this isn’t just about boarding school. The pain of separation can result from less dramatic forms of detachment from home life. Many parents find this inevitable due to the demands of today’s society and the lifestyle options now available to us.

So many of the issues that clients bring to counselling have at least some of their origins in the nature of their early life relationships. The study of the theories behind this subject is fascinating and many of us would recognise aspects of ourselves from the research findings over the years. A 2004 article written by Daniel Sonkin, a therapist practicing in California, in The Therapist*** makes reference to the fact that infants are incapable of regulating their own emotions and arousal, and so rely on their primary caregivers (usually mother) to teach them. Caregivers do this in the way they interact with their infants. Exactly how this happens in individual cases depends on how the caregiver herself has learnt to regulate her own emotions in early life. It’s not difficult to see how a particular pattern of relating to others can be passed down generations. But emotional difficulties arising from attachment issues can be eased by some exploration of earlier life relationships. This can initially be painful, but ultimately liberating.

The early years are the most critical, although Bowlby found that attachment behaviour occurs over the life span. Adults form attachments too, albeit often modelled on attachment styles developed in infancy.

As for boarding school, not everyone has a bad time and obviously much depends on individual experience. But perhaps the most illuminating feature of the newspaper article is the internet version, which includes responses from many who have boarded. You can form your own views from the link below****.

* The Damage Boarding Schools Do, by Nick Renton, The Observer, 20 July 2014

**Wounded Leaders, by Nick Duffell, Therapy Today, July 2014

***Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy, by Daniel J Sonkin PhD, The Therapist, January/February 2004

**** http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jul/20/damage-boarding-school-sexual-abuse-children