A parents’ guide to surviving boarding school

After months of preparation, the time has finally come. Boarding school beckons and that final goodbye is imminent.

“I know it was the right thing to do,” says mum-of-two Alex, who dropped her first-born at a well-reputed school in England’s leafy south west last year. “But it was still hard. After years of dreaming of some peace and quiet, the silence has turned out to be deafening.”

Having successfully manoeuvred her brood through two international moves and four school changes over the last thirteen years, one more move, this time from Hong Kong to Copenhagen, pushed the family into opting for boarding school. A boarding school child herself, Alex is confident of her decision, but that did nothing to ease the pain of waving goodbye.

“Charlie took one look at the rugby fields, the cricket pitch, the boarding house, and that was it, he couldn’t wait to move in,” she says. “And now his younger brother is counting down the days until it’s his turn. I’m glad the boys are so positive, but it leaves me feeling empty.”

Justine Campbell, family counsellor and director of Mindquest Group, admits her waiting room is bustling with ‘boarding school mums’ come autumn.

“Parents are kept so busy during the lead-up, the reality of what has happened doesn’t usually hit home until a few weeks after the departure,” she says. “Most parents will already have spent a fairly emotional year just getting the kids into their school of choice, so a degree of fatigue will also be setting in. The primary caregiver, usually the mother, is often the hardest hit emotionally when a child leaves home.”

“I held it together right up until the bit where it was the final goodbye, the last hug,” says mum-of-three Catherine. “I was desperately holding back the tears so Charlotte’s last memory wouldn’t be of her blubbing mother, but when I reached the airport later that afternoon and the check-in staff asked “are you flying alone?” it all came out. I was such a mess the girl on the desk ended up giving me an upgrade!”

One mother who wishes to remain anonymous experienced severe depression in the six months leading up to her son’s departure. “He wanted to go back to his old school from before we moved to Hong Kong,” she explains. “I was so upset. I didn’t want to socialise anymore, I lost a lot of weight, some days I couldn’t face leaving the apartment – it hit me so hard. Although I would say the reality of him being away has actually been easier than the lead-up.”

Just as parents react differently to the situation, children can too. It’s not unusual for kids who have been begging to go to boarding school suddenly do an about-face when they get there.

“There is no ‘cookie cutter’ response,” says Campbell. “All emotions are valid. A sense of guilt is a common reaction from parents. But it’s when these emotions don’t move along and you find yourself overloaded, that’s when you should be reaching out for help. You need to be able to process what you are feeling.”

Campbell encourages parents to talk to a trusted friend or seek out a professional. “I see many women in this sort of ‘grey zone’, exhausted from flying backwards and forwards for exeat weekends and half terms and trying to juggle that with family demands back in Hong Kong.”

“The mechanics have been tricky,” admits Catherine. “I had just dropped my daughter back to school and returned to Hong Kong when her teacher emailed to say she was being presented with a major award the following week. There was no way I could fly back so quickly as my two other children were just about to restart school in Hong Kong, so I had to scramble to contact another parent who could take a photo for me.”

Campbell advises parents reach out to the school community in advance. “Speak to the house master or mistress, explain you need help on-the-ground – they will have seen hundreds of international families pass through their door and will understand your concerns. They will have all sorts of assistance in place.

“And plan in advance – are there any birthdays or special festivals you need to mention to the boarding master? For my own son’s birthday, the master was entirely receptive to me ordering a cake and some pizza for his house as we had discussed and planned it beforehand.”

Communications, and how they are to be managed, should be talked about before the child leaves home. Things to consider include the time difference, school rules and how much time the child will realistically have given that they are going to be busy at their new school. “You may want an email a day, but it’s possible that will not be achievable,” says Campbell.

Managing the emotions of siblings back in Hong Kong can also be challenging.

“Family emotions are like a mobile,” says Amanda Stevens, a trauma counsellor with two children at boarding school. “It just takes one piece of the mobile to be removed and everything has to be rebalanced.” She advises that communication is key and to accept that all emotions are valid. “Maybe a younger child is just happy to have lost his annoying older brother, and that’s fine,” she says. “Just as a pair of siblings might have been really close. Whatever the situation, they need to be offered the opportunity to open up.”

Campbell adds that it’s important for the family to move on without feeling guilty. “It’s perfectly acceptable to want to shuffle living arrangements around. Think about it logically, how often will the child actually be in Hong Kong once you’ve factored in family holidays? Sit down and talk – if the child’s old enough for boarding school, they’re old enough to talk about bedroom allocations at home. Just make sure they are included in all discussions.”

Campbell recommends keeping busy in the first few weeks post drop-off, but also advises against jumping into time-consuming projects. “Give yourself space to sort your emotions out. Often, if you embark on something big too soon, you could just be papering over your feelings.”

“At the end of the day I think you need to trust your child,” says Catherine. “Be confident you’ve raised them well. And when they do come home, it’s all positive – the school has done all the nagging for a change! The anticipation of seeing my daughter each holiday is like having several Christmases a year.”


Tips for managing Term One

Make contact with those in charge of pastoral care and ensure you meet face-to-face and have all the necessary email addresses.

Reach out to the school community – ask to join parent-focused Facebook groups both at the school and back ‘home’ in Hong Kong. It’s ok to admit things are tough and to ask for help.

Plan ahead for birthday treats and special celebrations with the relevant member of school staff.

Talk about family communications before the child leaves home and keep expectations reasonable and in-line with school policy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to process emotions, seek professional help.