Why are we so frightened of big emotions that are incredibly normal?

I occasionally get emails from worried parents who have children who have begun boarding school, especially from rural parents who in some states are required to send their children the year they turn 12, rather than the year they turn 13. A year may not sound like much however it is an important year as so many of our girls and boys are on the cusp of the biggest and longest life transformation – adolescence.

A couple of things have concerned me deeply. The first was an email from a mother of a 12-year-old boy who’d begun boarding in an all male school. Her son had a very close and as she described ‘chatty’ relationship with both his mum and his dad. When the parents delivered their boy to the boarding house they were required to attend a seminar run by a ‘boy expert’ who outlined what their boy would need in the transition away from home and into boarding.

This expert recommended as little contact as possible, preferably none in the first three weeks. His theory was that the boys needed to not be ‘distracted’ by contact from their parents while the school was busy creating fun activities like rollerblading, movie nights, sporting events and trips to the beach to enable friendships to be formed.

While creating opportunities for boys to have fun and create connections with other boys is incredibly important in the initial stages of boarding school life, this recommended practice worries me greatly another level. Major life changes, even when planned, such as moving house, changing schools and beginning boarding school are major loss experiences. A loss event is always followed by a time of grief as the uncertainty and discomfort of the change process flows through the conscious and unconscious parts of our mind. This then triggers thoughts often based in fear, which then create emotions including sadness, anger and deep longing for what was safe and secure. When we feel vulnerable or out of our comfort zone we yearn to be close to those we love the most – for comfort, for reassurance and to remind us that this period of grieving will gradually get better.

I am especially concerned for the more sensitive of our boys and girls as well, who struggle deeply with a sense of separation distress, or abandonment and of being misunderstood and feeling invalidated and unheard. These challenging emotions can be made a little easier with forewarning.

Education and information about this time of uncertainty – and acknowledging that it can be much more debilitating than a patch of homesickness – months ahead of time and again as they prepare to head off is important. When I was counselling full-time I was often busy in the first term of the school year helping more sensitive 13- to 15-year-olds overcome this separation from their families, their homes and their communities. Many cried themselves to sleep every night for up to three months.

Every child processes loss differently so remember no one size fits all. I encourage their families, especially their mums, to stay in touch, to send messages of love and connection including care packages that include some of the things they might be missing.

So why would this school recommend no contact with mums and dads? I am thinking that to avoid these grieving young adolescents, the staff may believe they would avoid the tears that may come when they hear the voices of those they love over the phone. This is a complete denial of the grieving process that is occurring within every single boarder.

When we give clear messages that our big feelings – which are incredibly valid, normal and a healthy part of the grieving process – are somehow wrong or bad or, worse still, a form of weakness we may very well be setting these boys up to struggle with knowing what to do with the same feelings later on in life.

This is simply perpetuating unhelpful stereotypical messages that boys need to be tough. So often the only pathway left to them is to express these feelings through angry and aggressive behaviour, and inappropriate forms of emotional freezing.

I once worked with a man who had been raised in a boarding school in Africa. He had been at the boarding school from the age of 4 ½ to 16, and this practice of freezing or numbing one’s emotions, especially emotions that make us feel vulnerable, frightened or sad, had created in him a lifetime of misery. Indeed his chest was like a concrete wall and this armouring ensured he never felt anything. Sadly that included love, and it meant that his life had been very challenging and full of repeated abandonment, addictive behaviours, violent episodes and mental illness.

Grief needs to be first acknowledged and expressed so that the enormous, often irrational and scary feelings of loss can be released from our nervous system and our body, so that we can heal. We don’t heal when we push these feelings down, suppress and hide them. My deep congratulations to the boarding houses who have ‘boarding mothers’ who are able to create safe places for our boys who are struggling to cry, to feel frightened and to own the myriad of feelings that can be a part of every grief journey.

The second message I received that concerned me was again from the mother of another first-time border. This lad seemed to be transitioning well when, completely out of character, he punched one of his new friends. When staff contacted this boy’s parents they reassured them not to worry too much because he seemed like a good kid who’d just had a ‘brain fart’. This is the term loosely applied to when boys do dumb things without thinking.

Once again minimising vulnerable moments in a boy’s life by equating it to some “boys will be boys” judgement can become problematic.

For a young lad who to all intents and purposes was adjusting well, this moment was very concerning. This was a sign that this lad had reached his ‘tipping point’. This is something I explore in my work around adolescents. Given that the brain changes create all sorts of shifts in the way our young girls and boys interpret experience, and cope with challenges – when we add the increased emotional intensity, especially of early adolescence, this out-of-character behaviour is a serious sign that something is not right. The tipping point is often reached with something quite tiny.

I would suggest that this young lad was also struggling with deep homesickness or grief that he had managed to hide from the school, the boarding staff and his family, and he would have had suppressed all his vulnerable feelings, probably avoided contacting those he loves the most and it simply became too much. Again he was given clear messages that his vulnerable emotional world was to be denied and hidden. In a way this family need to be grateful that all he did was punched his friend, because over the years I have worked with teens who have self-harmed badly, run away, committed crimes like light fires, engaged in dangerous and risky behaviour – and have hurt themselves badly, and worst of all, suicided.

We must not deny the huge emotional angst that accompanies major life changes including going to boarding school for the first time, starting a new school, moving to a new town or country.

We need to create a supportive network that validates emotional honesty, psychological support and an honest understanding that every single adolescent grieves differently.

Sometimes regular contact with loving parents is what will work best. Sometimes regular weekends home in the first six months is what works best. We need to be careful not to invalidate and disrespect the big ugly feelings that occur when we lose close connection to those we love, to our homes, to our pets and to many freedoms that particularly farm kids value enormously.

Significant change impacts minds, bodies, hearts and souls. Why are we so frightened of these incredibly normal human emotions? When they are validated and heard, they tend to diminish and allow authentic healing to occur.