When Your Child Goes to Boarding School: Beneath the Surface

familydynamics

I love learning…which is probably a good thing considering I have spent the last 23 years as an Educator!  Earlier this week I had the privilege of sitting under the tutelage of Dr Anne Copeland, a researcher and licensed psychologist with expertise in cultural transition and clinical psychology. She really got me thinking about the family dynamics associated with moving, whether it be from the country to the city, one side of the country to another or from one country to another.

I am currently consulting to a school here in Sydney who facilitates education for both Day Students and Boarders. In particular I am working with the Boarding Staff to help them develop a program for supporting their ‘new arrivals’ through the triumphs and challenges of transition. Some of these students have lived in the same house, on the same street or farm, in the same town for their entire life whilst others have moved all over the globe, living in multiple countries and attending many different types of schools. Regardless of their past experience with mobility, each of these students has to adjust to a new school, new city and in some cases, a new country. Also regardless of their past experience with mobility, their family has “lost” a family member within the four walls of their home. This changes the family dynamics.

Entrances and exits define different stages in a  family’s life. Examples of these include marriage, births, retirements,  beginning Kindergarten, graduations and a child exiting the family home. According to Dr Copeland, apart from the physical changes within the family, beneath the surface there are other changes occurring with boundaries, the family sub-systems and the roles. This takes quite an adjustment on everyone’s part.

The boundary around the family has grown smaller because one member of the family has stepped outside. Other siblings may find they have less freedom because they become the centre of attention (some may love that attention!). This contracted boundary will have to extend again when the Boarder comes home for the holidays and in some cases, the boundary is made thicker because time as a family unit is limited so every second of family-time is guarded and treasured. The family dynamics change.

The family sub-systems change when a child heads off to Boarding School. Friends of mine have a son and a daughter. With the departure of their son, suddenly Dad lost his sporting buddy, the sister lost her brother who made the whole family laugh and the Mum lost Mr Reliable, the son who could hang a painting or open that pesky lid on the jam jar when her husband was travelling for work. The family dynamics change.

Of course the most obvious change is in the roles within the family when a child exits the home. More responsibility falls on the sibling and/or the parents and a period of adjustment in required. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to when you first moved in with your partner and had that awkward period where you danced around each other trying not to step on toes but also making your priorities, likes and dislikes clear! The family dynamics change.

As you can see, a lot goes on in a family when a child leaves home for Boarding School. Not only is the child working through the transition of being away from home whilst adjusting to a new school and environment, the family members left behind are working through the transition of new family boundaries, sub-systems and roles.  Towards the end of last year, I had the privilege of speaking to the parents of incoming Boarders and reiterated that there would be challenges for them at home as well as for their child away from home. Dr Copeland’s research has just reinforced to me the need for school-based transition programs to include all family members, not just the student. By supporting these families, they are better placed to provide support to their child away from home along with all the members within the home and therefore, thrive in the “new normal.”

If you know a family that has a child (or children) who has recently exited the family home for a new & exciting life at Boarding School, please support these families by acknowledging how flexible and how adaptable they have to be and consider the strengths that come from being able to work through the challenges of transition and adapting to new family dynamics.*

*Dr Anne Copeland 2016

Photo Credit: Burlington Public School

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