Attachment Theory And Boarding School: What Parents Need To Know

While boarding schools exist around the world, they are most common in the United Kingdom as well as former British colonies or throughout countries that were or are Commonwealth countries. Different forms of boarding schools exist, but the most common are the true boarding schools where students as young as five years of age may be sent off from their family to live at the boarding school throughout the academic year.

A London born psychologist, psychoanalyst as well as psychiatrist named Edward John Mostyn Bowlby (1907-1990) was one of the first people to study the effects of boarding school attendance by children. He was also a child that had attended boarding school himself, sent off with his older brother both for safety during the first World War as well as for his academic advancement.

His time in boarding school was very traumatic and shaped his interest in attachment theory. The developed the evolutionary theory of attachment through his own experiences as well as his extensive studies and work directly with patients.

The Basics Of Evolutionary Theory of Attachment

Interestingly enough, Bowlby looked to the world around him as well as in the study of his human patients. He believed and theorized that children, like young animals, are born with specific biological programs.

These ingrained or pre-programmed behaviours include the ability to form attachments with the primary caregiver, which is typically the mother. This is similar to how ducklings will imprint the hen, which was also a study completed at the time that Bowlby was working on his theory.

Additionally, he believed that fear of strangers was also a pre-programmed behaviour that was a self-protection mechanism. This is why babies and toddlers will smile at the mother but cry, fuss and struggle to get away from a stranger.

In this way, and throughout human evolution, babies that strongly attached to the mother and feared strangers were the infants that survived to reproduce, thereby strengthening the pre-programming and ensuring the survival of the species.

The Risk of Attachment Loss

Through Bowlby's theory, the baby, infant, toddler and young child clings to the attachment with the mother. This allows the child to explore the world while still having a safe anchor for both physical as well as mental comfort and protection. This also, in this theory, creates one unique relationship that will be different than all other relationships in the future.

Through having a long, unbroken attachment with the mother, the child learns how to have a giving, open and secure emotional attachment with others, including friends, partners and family. This aspect was called monotropy.

When this relationship is suddenly broken, as in the case of being sent off to boarding school, the child sees that bond or attachment as immediately lost. He termed this maternal deprivation, which is the opposite of monotropy.

While this was originally thought to just occur with very young children, further research and studies lead Bowlby and subsequent researchers to see it could occur in children that are much older, even as old as seven plus years of age.

The signs of this type of loss of attachment and separation from the caregiver can include social avoidance, feelings of being unloved or rejected, or children that are very angry or confused about themselves and their role in relationships. It is also linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety orders as these children mature and become adults. 


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