ICS alumni parent and registered counseling psychologist talks about boarding school and family bonding
Boarding schools can be a confusing topic to navigate for both parents and students alike. Some parents are enthusiastic about sending their child off to boarding school to build independence, while others prefer the stability and the family life that day school offers. To explore the subject further, we asked ICS alumni parent and registered counseling psychologist Selina Ho-Leung about her professional opinion on whether or not children are psychologically ready for boarding schools.
Selina Ho-Leung is an ICS alumni parent as well as a registered counseling psychologist. Selina had worked as the Senior Student Counsellor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the past 21 years. She is currently in private practice and is the founder of the Institute of Emotion-Focused Therapy (Asia). Her daughters Clarissa and Robin have both gone on to pursue careers in psychotherapy in Canada.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How to Determine if Your Child Can Navigate a New Environment
As an experienced counselor, what is your recommendation for parents? Is there a preferred time for teenagers to go overseas for school?
Emotions and emotional stability are significantly related to our brain and neurons. Based on scientific research, the brain is fully developed at the age of 20 to 22, but it also varies from individual to individual. A good question to ask is if the parent-child relationship is established and secure. Children feel safer going out by themselves when they have an established and secure relationship with their parents.
Based on my personal experience, I switched my two girls from a prestigious local school to ICS so that it would be easier for them to transition to school abroad after graduating from ICS. If they were at a local school, I would’ve wanted them to leave home two years before university. It was good for my girls to be home even when they were in Gr. 11 and 12 to build up family bonds.
In your 21 years of counseling at CUHK, have you encountered any students or cases that suffered from emotional issues because of family bonding?
Definitely, in our research, the onset for people with mental issues is from age 15 to 24 because their brain is still developing. It is a critical time for young adults to have a stable environment for growth. Even exchange students have a hard time adjusting when they are back in Hong Kong. Parents should observe if their children can adapt to changes quickly.
I saw from my twenty years of experience that if there is a strong foundation in the parents, students can bounce back quickly when they stumble. If there is a lack of support, the students have a more challenging time. For example, I once had a student who was having problems because she broke up with her boyfriend. She stole someone’s wallet. She had robust ties with her family, and they were very forgiving and supportive. She only needed three to four sessions with me. If her family wasn’t understanding or shamed her, she might’ve needed more counseling sessions. Her resilience would’ve been lower.
We surveyed what ICS secondary students and parents think about boarding school. Results show that parents and children are highly concerned about the issue of safety in a new environment. Do you think a teenager is capable of handling conflicts for themselves in a new environment?
It is a legitimate concern for parents. Many parents are concerned about safety, their physical environment, COVID-19, and the issue of bullying. The important thing is to see how your children can acquire different skills in their daily lives. Parents can start preparing their kids to handle conflict starting when they’re young. For example, when my girls were old enough to go out by themselves and take a taxi, I would ask them to tell me the taxi driver’s name and license number. There are different ways to train our kids in protecting themselves in all areas of life.
How does the influence of family help in the development of a teenager?
I think family influence is one of the most critical elements in the development of a person. There is a parent-child attachment even at a young age. Building up a young person’s self-esteem and self-image is very important as it would affect all areas of their lives.
In terms of academics, parents are already doing a lot of good work. They’re looking for good schools such as ICS or planning for their child to go abroad. But parents also need to assess their child’s intellectual and analytical abilities, including critical thinking, organizational skills, and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, emotional stability is an essential aspect of whether your child can handle changes such as meeting new people and being in new environments. Changes may bring challenges and pressures. Parents need to consider all these factors to decide if their kids are ready to leave home.
As parents, we try our best to provide for our children, hoping they know we love them. But in reality, that’s not often the case.
Many students say to me, “I think my parents love me based on how they sacrifice or provide for me, but I don’t feel my parents’ love.” Their parents do a lot for them, but the students don’t feel their love emotionally, only cognitively. I’m sad about that because I know parents love their kids and try to provide for them. But most of the time, it’s not what the kids want or need. As parents, we need to be more understanding and have a greater awareness of what our kids want or need.
You’ve shared that the parent-children relationship is like flying a kite. Can you expand on that?
One time I preached a sermon on this at my church and my elder daughter was there. I talked about how we want our children to soar and that our ties are still there even though we cannot see them. It’s important for parents to feel safe and secure when we don’t see our children, but we know they can handle it and have the ability to handle situations when we’ve trained them up. On the day my elder daughter got married, she hugged me and said our tie will always be there.
In addition to family support and bonding, spiritual health is also essential. I have to say I have a lot of gratitude towards ICS. In their last two years of schooling, I saw that their Christian belief is crucial to them, even though they grew up in a Christian family and my husband is a pastor. ICS had a significant impact on their spiritual journey, and they were both very involved in their Christian fellowships during university. When my daughter moved from place to place for work or school, the first thing she looked for was a church community. She can strengthen her relationship with God and get social support from church members. God is their own God, not their parent’s God. I felt relieved that they were willing to submit their lives to God. God will take care of them 24/7, and as parents, we cannot do that.
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