Boarding school without tears

2014-01-23 00:00

TAKE care not to be over-enthusiastic about the joys of boarding. In a very real sense, your child is leaving home and will be suspicious if you wax too lyrical while he or she is dealing with loss as well as anticipation. If you were a boarder, remember that some of your memories will have been distorted by time. You may also be feeling nervous for your child and try to over-compensate for this anxiety by idealising boarding. When talking about the entry into boarding and consequent delights, stick to what you really know about what is to come — both the delights and challenges. A matter-of-fact tone goes a long way.

• Make sure that the preparations include appropriate leave-taking rituals within the family and among close friends so that the occasion is marked as a significant rite of passage into a new phase of life. Such rituals can ensure that the child is fully aware that he or she is supported by a firm foundation on which to build burgeoning independence. A ritual such as this can become part of each start of year or term so that the child feels movement to and from boarding is cyclical, and can be reassured that home is always there and will return again. Some families mark home coming in a similar way.

• All children have shown some forms of resilience in challenging situations while they have traversed the years prior to beginning boarding. It may be helpful to bring these to your child’s awareness in the weeks building up to the new boarding adventure. It might be sensible to do this light-heartedly and indirectly in the form of anecdote in ordinary conversation, rather than as a serious “lesson”.

• Make sure that your child knows when he or she will see the family again. Some boarding schools have a policy of no contact and no cellphones for a designated period of time. The child should have a clear sense of how long this period will be and some idea of what the family will be engaged in during the no-contact period.

• If you were a boarder, or know the experiences of other boarders, tell stories to your new boarder about socialising and teachers and routines and treats and seniors and dormitories and prep, etc. If there are bits of tried-and-tested wisdom on how to deal with new or challenging moments, then share these but don’t overwhelm the child with too much.

• Make sure you entice your child to be able to look at situations through lenses of humour.

• Help your child to understand that at boarding school (as in the rest of life), we can’t afford to take bullying personally and that the secret weapon against bullies is to know that they are fundamentally weak and insecure or socially dysfunctional. Hopefully, our schools are now civilised enough to help newcomers to differentiate between activities of integration to school, and initiation practices that are illegal and damaging. A sound boarding system will be vigilant about this and will even teach the newcomers how to react should there be some seniors who indulge in the latter. Team-building is one thing, terrorising another. As a parent, you may have to help your child with this should it arise. Again, a matter-of-fact approach is best.

• It may well be helpful to your new boarder to know that homesickness, if it comes, is a normal reaction to starting boarding and to know, too, that it is a temporary condition that time generally fixes. You could explain that people get homesickness in varying degrees and that is because we are all different and not because some are weak and some are strong. A perfect antidote to homesickness is busyness and getting involved with the other children, and laughing at nonsense. If it is really sore, the house mother is the person to go to.

• If your new boarder is in primary school, an actual transitional object to take along will be a good idea. This will be a meaningful object from home that can be kept and held and perhaps slept with, such as a favourite teddy (check what the school allows) or a family photograph.

• Let your child know that you will be looking forward to hearing stories of the classroom, dorm and sports field at your first visit, although there is likely to be some overwhelm when the visit takes place and you may have to be content with “it’s fine”.

• If the opportunity presents itself, go through the events on the school calendar that you know will appeal to your child so that there are things to look forward to.

• Perhaps, above all, allow your child to feel the quiet, steady confidence you have that he or she is capable of becoming more independent, but make sure that the child also knows that the separation has impact on you — that you are not gaily abandoning him or her.

• Floss Mitchell is a counselling psychologist.

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