Blurring Professional Boundaries in Youth Work Hurts Everyone

Marsha* told me she didn’t think I cared about her as much as the other staff person Ms. Gwen* because I didn’t give her my phone number and let her call me at all hours of the night. Even though this 13 year-old young person and I had an easy rapport and she admitted that I provided services, supports and opportunities to do things she had never experienced before, she still labeled my dedication to her and my work as a youth worker substandard when compared to Ms. Gwen who freely passed out her cell number to the youth in our program.

I tried to explain to Marsha the idea of professional boundaries and how Ms. Gwen may seem more “cool” than I because she contacts the youth from home and allows the youth to contact her outside of the center, but she is really sending mixed messges. Inevitably, Marsha wasn’t trying to hear it. And I completely understand.

As a young person newly entering teen-agedom– a world where loyalty is based on outer things and best friends change as frequently as underwear, her perception of commitment and dedication are found in the little things that define friendship in a teen-age world. Marsha is not the one who should have had to listen to the importance of professional boundaries. Ms. Gwen should have been the one I lectured to.

In our world where we work with young people who come from backgrounds that include parents who are absent, parents who depend on their kids to help raise their other kids and parents who confide in their children, it is our duty to make sure we provide an environment where there is boundary yet support. Some of the young people we work with are so used to being their parent’s best friend or raising their younger siblings that they don’t understand that there is a difference between adulthood and childhood because they have not been able to truly live as children.

Most people maintain professional boundaries with youth to avoid any accusations of sexual child abuse or harrassment. This is a common sense reason to maintain professional boundaries, but there are other reasons that exist as well. When we blur those boundaries and give youth the false idea that we are their friend and on equal stance when it comes to confiding and sharing, then we are doing a disservice to that young person. If we are more than a unbiased youth worker and now their friend who they can chat with and who, in turn, chats and shares with them, then that young person must now reciprocate with being someone who provides an ear to listen to for you. We no longer are able to provide services, supports and opportunities to young people once we have diluted our role as a youth worker. We also make it harder for our colleagues who understand and implement professional boundaries yet must make amends for your unprofessionalism.

You may be blurring the lines of professionalism in youth work if you:

(1) Pass your number out to young people to call you whenever they want and this is not a service rendered by your agency but one that you personally allow.
Read your job’s agency handbook and see if there are guidelines regarding youth interaction. If giving out personal phone numbers is a no-no, then you may be fired if your supervisor finds that this is going on. If it is not listed as a no-no yet it is not something that everyone is doing, check with your supervisor to make sure it is okay. I don’t recommend passing out personal numbers unless in extreme cases where you are rendering case management to the family and you need periodic updates from the family to document particular changes.

(2) Give money to youth when they ask.
The reality is is that all youth are not the same. Just because you work with at-risk youth does not mean that it is your personal job to give money to one whenever they ask. This creates a cycle of dependence, blurs the professional boundary and creates problems when other youth become aware that you may be giving youth A money everyday and now they want some as well. If a young person you are working with needs bus fare regularly and you are supplying the demand, then there is a problem. For those in nonprofit, discuss with a supervisor the needs youth are having attending your program because they can’t cover transportation costs. If this is a problem more than one youth is having, then this is a programmatic issue that needs to be addressed, not one that you personally must amend. For those with case management components of your program (or for schools, those with guidance counselors or social workers), a need for money is something that needs to be addressed by those who provide family services.

(3) Take the young person to your house.
This is the biggest no-no in my book. I don’t believe there are any youth-focused organizations that condone this. You are opening your agency and yourself up to a boatload of liability when you take a youth in your program home. You are also blurring those boundaries in ways that are too numerous to mention. There is nothing that should be taking place in your house that can’t happen within the appropriate confines of the work environment that you and the young person is familiar with.

I’m going to stop at three. I have a total of ten all together, but I really would like you to begin thinking in terms of what your own ideas of professinal boundaries are. Are there any areas that you think should be mentioned but people tend to overlook?

*names changed for privacy’s sake

One thought on “Blurring Professional Boundaries in Youth Work Hurts Everyone”

  1. Excellent points! Unfortunately, this line blurring occurs with young adults in higher education as well. It is important to let students know that you care, and are a resource for them, but we must remain professions. Otherwise, the job becomes hard when you have to discipline your friend/student.

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