Dr Suzanne Zeedyk is Scotland’s leading authority on Boarding School Syndrome – a condition which turns children into adults devoid of empathy and a risk to others. If someone in power has the syndrome then they could cause untold suffering to society at large. Here, she’s in conversation with our Writer at Large Neil Mackay

DOES Boris Johnson’s experience in boarding school explain his dysfunctional premiership? Did the psychological damage done to Johnson create a prime minister with a narcissistic personality stripped of empathy – and in turn lead to dire consequences for the British public in terms of the policies he has pursued?

If you spend time talking with psychologist Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Scotland’s leading authority on the condition known as boarding school syndrome (BSS), then the answer is an inescapable ‘yes’.

The little studied, and even less discussed, syndrome has devastating effects on the human personality. Children are sent away by their parents at a young age, often experiencing profound levels of anxiety, rejection and trauma, causing deep attachment problems. At school, many suffer intense physical bullying, and even sexual assault, from older pupils. In the past, there have been many cases of teachers sexually and physically abusing pupils.

The consequences are frightening. Boarders, Zeedyk says, can easily grow up devoid of empathy, with extreme problems processing emotions and dealing with conflict. Quite frankly, she explains, boarding school “survivors” can become “dangerous narcissists”. In effect, as human beings, people with BSS, unless they receive help and therapy, are damaged by their childhood experiences, and can harm those around them. As so many former boarding school pupils are in Government, there’s a clear risk of society and the public suffering as a result of their personality problems.

Zeedyk, an acclaimed developmental psychologist specialising in childhood attachment, draws this disturbing conclusion: “It’s a real worry for the people they’ve power over. If you’ve enough people with unresolved, emotional trauma who congregate in the corridors of power, you’ve the potential for policymaking that ripples out to the whole country.”

The Herald on Sunday has conducted multiple investigations into historic abuse at elite boarding schools. Much of the violence was inflicted by older pupils on younger pupils in a “Lord Of The Flies” style environment. Grotesque humiliation, sometimes sexualised, often occurred.

Pupils were isolated and degraded. Sometimes young victims turn into perpetrators when they become older pupils.

Zeedyk worked for 20 years as a research scientist at Dundee University after her postgraduate studies at Yale University. Over recent years, she has become Britain’s leading advocate for boarding school survivors.

“Boarding school experiences,” says Zeedyk, “can leave you with emotional difficulties and mental health problems – long-term consequences. Boarding schools too often leave emotional damage.”

Separation trauma

ZEEDYK breaks down the causes of BSS into three parts. Firstly, children are separated from their family. “If that happens at an early age, it’s traumatising,” she says. “I know people who were sent to boarding school at four, five or six. A very common age is seven.” Separation leads to “terror” for children. There are accounts of young children in hysterics as their parents drove away, leaving them behind.

“Children learn uncomfortable things – like your parents will abandon you, they won’t care what you feel, they won’t come and rescue you. You learn not to trust your parents. Those are unbelievably awful things to learn so early.”

This sense of abandonment is compounded by the fact that children are told that being sent away is good for them because their parents are spending huge amounts of money to give them a privileged life. Children are made to feel “you’re lucky to go there and if bad things happen you can’t complain”. Some term this “privileged abandonment”.

The result is that children “squash” their feelings. Zeedyk says: “You’re supposed to be grateful for this experience. You’re not meant to be angry with your parents. So it feels awful, but you’re not supposed to feel awful, so you’re in terrible psychological and emotional conflict.”

Bullying and abuse

SECONDLY, experiences of abuse “get layered” onto these attachment problems. Zeedyk heaps praise on former pupils currently speaking out about “sexual abuse, and bullying by peers and adults”. She tells of pupils forbidden from crying while being abused, and of comfort items like teddy bears being destroyed. Zeedyk says these events are what is termed ACEs – “adverse childhood experiences” associated with abuse and neglect.

Thirdly, there is the inter-generational factor. Most children who go to elite boarding schools follow in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. So, they’re raised by people who themselves have deep psychological problems with emotion, attachment and empathy. “If you come from a class of people who expect to send you away to boarding school when you get to seven – how do you go about raising your own children?”

Zeedyk asks: “In what ways do you relate to your baby emotionally if you’re expecting to send them away? You end up with a really powerful class of people who are cruel – we need a conversation about that.”

Cold parents

MOST parents struggle to understand how anyone could send their children away. “I totally get that some might think ‘how can you do that? You must be a terrible parent’

– or thinking that parents intentionally f*** up their children.” Zeedyk uses the phrase “f*** up” deliberately as it evokes the famous poem This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin which opens: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad.”

She adds: “It’s possible there are some people who damage their children without meaning to – that they pay money to damage their children without intending damage, that they meant to give their children something good. If you’ve money and access to boarding school and it’s just normal for your ‘class’, then it’s hard to think that the things you’re doing to your children could cause harm.”

Zeedyk makes a comparison to female genital mutilation. “Some cultures think women don’t need a clitoris – that you can have a perfectly happy life without a clitoris.”

She adds: “So, if boarding school syndrome causes emotional repression, angst, that you’re not very good at relationships, not in touch with yourself, not empathetic to others – maybe those are seen as prices worth paying?

“If you’ve lots of power, maybe you don’t know that emotional fulfilment is a thing worth having, maybe it’s not a thing you want for your children?”


BSS sufferers find “relationships difficult, empathy could be really challenging –you’ve all sorts of problems that you might call complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which even affects you biologically”.

Aside from struggling with empathy, BSS also causes family and relationship problems. “You might feel really distant from other people, find relationships scary, not be very close to your children. Your partner might go on about you not listening. You might have been through relationship after relationship.”

Then, in an aside, she adds: “You might have a whole number of children that you won’t even tell the public about – maybe you don’t even know the number of children you have.”

Referring to Boris Johnson, who attended Eton, Zeedyk said the Tory Party trying to get rid of him while he insists on remaining in power until the autumn is like “watching someone trying to break up with a narcissistic boyfriend”. She warned that if thwarted those with BSS-related personality issues could become “dangerous”.

Referring to the possible effects of boarding school on British politicians and the consequences for society, Zeedyk added: “If you don’t have enough empathy, then when you’ve power you might make policy that isn’t very empathetic to the people you’ve power over. You don’t care if they’re hungry or cold as those things aren’t important –money feels much better than relationships.”

Empire mentality

ZEEDYK turns her attention to the impact of boarding school on the creation of the British empire. “Once upon a time, British – particularly English – culture thought it a good idea to build an empire. How did all those men go so far from home to do that? Boarding school.” Taking over distant countries requires a specific mindset, she says. “If you’re sent away from home really early, you’ll do great at making empires. Boarding school changed British culture.”

The “Spartan and brutal” mindset of elite families who send children away “is great for creating an empire. I say that honestly and slightly facetiously – because just look at the consequences of empire: Britain destroyed lots of cultures and made those cultures grateful for that”. Boarding school, she suggests, explains “how you end up with a culture that’s so unempathetic and imperialistic. It ripples out”.

Boarding schools, Zeedyk feels, could be seen as a British “cultural sickness”, the same way that guns are an American cultural sickness. Zeedyk also believes that wealthy families depending on nannies is damaging. “Children don’t have warmth, affection and emotional reliability if someone is simply hired to look after them rather than love them. It changes the expectations they have of other people. It changes the trust they have in others.”

In adulthood, people who went to boarding school and were raised by nannies “struggle to handle big feelings like falling in love. Emotional intimacy becomes difficult. You get relationships where the emotional connection is weak and distant”

Power and glory

“IF you have a class of people where enough of them parent their babies in a particular way that’s really distant then you layer on that separation from parents at boarding school, then layer on abuse, humiliation, ACEs – you’re likely to have some dreadfully emotionally warped people, and if you’ve enough of them in power then we have some real worries for the people they have power over.”

Zeedyk is aware that those angry at political leaders will find it difficult to feel pity “for the childhoods of these politicians”.

The irony, she notes, is that “elite families” are unaware of the damage they are doing to their own children, and, possibly, society as a whole. They are all living with “unresolved trauma

– because why would you resolve it if you think what you’re doing is normal, if you don’t think it’s trauma”. She adds: “But unresolved trauma always ripples. It can ripple in little ways, like through your own life by maybe taking drugs, or divorce, or children who don’t feel close to you, or if you’ve enough people in power it can ripple in big ways across the whole country, and even the world.”

It is not just the political world which contains a high proportion of former boarding school pupils – the same goes for the media, the military and many other “pillars of the establishment”.

Zeedyk is keen, though, to distinguish between private school and boarding school as the issue is about separation and abuse, not the more political question of a system which gives children elite education and advantage in return for large sums of money.

She also points out that boarding schools, although still inflicting emotional damage on children, have changed somewhat for the better. “Today’s boarding school is different from the boarding schools that Boris Johnson, David Cameron or Jacob Rees-Mogg went to,” she points out.

Corporal punishment is now banned and children can use mobile phones to contact family.


ONE of the problems many survivors experience, however – when they try to come to terms with what’s happened to them and seek therapy – is that their pain is “rejected by society”. Many feel their parents’ wealth means few feel pity for them as they would for other survivors of childhood trauma. Zeedyk advocates we all practise what she calls “fierce curiosity” – by which she means “being curious about uncomfortable things”.

Many people traumatised at boarding school, says Zeedyk, often don’t come to terms with the fact that they’ve been damaged until midlife. “Some are in their forties or fifties before they discover they could have had a more joyous life. It’s terribly sad.”

Many former boarding school pupils are also resistant to the idea of BSS, and often say “it never did me any harm”. It’s the same “form of denial”, according to Zeedyk, heard from people who went to state school when the belt was used and now say “getting hit never did me any harm”. Zeedyk is clear that all emotional or physical pain in childhood creates adults damaged in some way. “When people say ‘my parents used to beat me and it never did me any harm’ most of us realise they’re in denial. You may not realise that boarding school caused trauma for you, especially if you also left with power. You may not want to have to face up to that.”

It is also understandable that past pupils and boarding school staff deny the damage done as to admit the truth, Zeedyk says, “would trigger feelings of guilt and shame, and people defend against those”.

There may be some people not damaged by boarding school, she says, but that would depend on: no abuse at the school; plenty of access to parents; and good family circumstances at home. “Attachment and trauma overlap,” she explains. Attachment disorders can lead to anger and even violence. “What we’re basically talking about here is the result of scary childhoods and toxic stress. I want us to pay attention to emotional experiences in childhood.”

On the issue of claims that “boarding school doesn’t harm everybody”, Zeedyk says: “That’s an interesting discussion because it leads me to ask: what was happening in your home that being parted from your parents was a better option than being with them?”

Dark masculinity

ZEEDYK is conscious of the way British culture has presented a false and cosy image of boarding schools through films and literature like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers or the Harry Potter books. The cultural representation of boarding schools is mostly “a total lie. We live in denial about the reality”.

In truth, what boarding schools do culturally is “get rid of the maternal. They were intended to stop all that softness, to turn ‘boys into men’ and what that means is that masculinity became a hard, disconnected, mean and emotionally vapid way of being in the world”. She also says there is an argument to be made that the British class system and tradition of deference became “hardwired into our cultural DNA” partly due to boarding schools.

Many boarding school survivors also report using humour as a defence mechanism, especially to prevent beatings from older pupils. “There’s a lot of self-aggrandisement. You can become charismatic, or learn to be the clown – like ruffling your hair,” Zeedyk says, “so people laugh with you, but if it gets edgy you turn to putdowns – even at Prime Minister’s Questions, perhaps. It’s because you can’t handle emotional interactions or conflict.”

Care home comparison

ZEEDYK sees boarding school in the same light as care homes. “There are lots of comparisons,” she says. Children are parted from their parents, and often there’s violence and neglect in the institution. “We accept the problems of the care system, but we’re not used to transferring that kind of awareness of the impact of childhood experiences to elite boarding schools.”

The “distress of care” can, she says, lead to adults turning to crime, violence, drugs, and ending in prison. “Often people in prison have only harmed one person. If, however, you have the power to make policy, you can harm a whole lot of people with no chance of going to prison or being held to account. We need to recognise when people are dangerous – especially when they’re dangerous to other people. You can’t just hope they’ll change their personality.”

Zeedyk returns to her theme of “fierce curiosity”, saying we need to try to understand why some parents feel it’s okay to send their children to boarding school. British society once “sent children up chimneys”, and it took generations to recognise that as abuse.

What to do

TODAY, many boarding school pupils come from nations like China, Saudi and Russia. Zeedyk says 11 is currently the most common age for attending. She believes boarding schools should be for adolescents only, with no pupil under 13-15. She would also remove their charitable status as a means of diminishing their influence. Much more robust reporting of abuse is required, and consideration should be given to permanent onsite psychologists counselling children through attachment issues. Does she think boarding schools will always be with us? “It’s not just about changing the law, it’s about changing culture too,” she says. “We used to strap children at school, then one day things changed and laws were passed and overnight you couldn’t hit children any more.”