Special thanks to Megan E. at Evergreen State College in Washington state who reminded me that I did not post the final seven tips that indicate that you may have blurred professional lines. Here they are for your review with the first three that were posted earlier.
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 harassment. 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
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 youthfocused 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.
(4) Disclose personal information
The young person doesn’t need to know about your impending divorce or about how great the club was last night. Remember that the young person is someone you are providing supports, services and opportunities to. They do not need to become YOUR personal support and
unpaid therapist. Disclosing this type of information also gives the impression that you are friends, further blurring the lines of professionalism.
(5) Engage in flirty behavior with the youth
Telling a young person they look nice is different then making a suggestive comment along the lines of “If I were younger, I’d be taking you home tonight”… Engaging in flirty behavior will give the impression you are interested in the young person in a way that is not fitting between
a youth and the adult paid to provide social services, counseling, mentorship or instruction. If you are speaking to a young person as you would to someone you are trying to date or be intimate with, chances are it is inappropriate talk.
(6) Gossip about other young people publicly
A young person comes to you because they have a problem with a peer. You know this peer and don’t like them either. It is not your place to share with the young person who came to you that you are in agreement. This is unprofessional and identify you as someone who all young people can not be comfortable to confide in because you have made it known who you like and dislike. Ideally, there should be no favorites.
(7) Initiate inappropriate play
At one school I worked at, the teacher would “jone”—tease—on the students playfully as they teased her back. Often, one student would tease her so harshly, she would often punish the student with detention once he joked her so hard that the entire class couldn’t stop laughing.
This punitive response was very harsh and unfair being that the teacher begin the “play”. As a youth worker, it is your responsibility to have the judgment to recognize what is appropriate and inappropriate play.
Teasing in any form has the potential of hurting feelings. If you can’t handle the play and aren’t teaching anything valuable while engaging in play with young people, it is best to find other means to break the ice and build rapport.
(8) Talk about your co-workers with the young person
The young people you are servicing do not need to know that you hate your co-workers who work with them too. This creates tension and forces the young people to pick sides (or at least pretend to). This blurs the lines of professionalism and creates an uneasy environment.
(9) Lie to protect the young person
You are getting yourself into deep catastrophe if you encounter a situation where you believe lying for the young person is the best measure. Understand that the truth usually comes out and typically makes the situation worse. Also, if you are lying for the young person, you are later telling the young person to keep your confidence and keep up the lie. This is not only creating a potential professional mess for yourself, it is also teaching the action of lying to the young person.
(10) Engage in sexual relations
No need to explore the reasoning as to why this isn’t a great idea. Under no circumstance is sleeping with a young person in your care acceptable.
List created by Khadijah Ali-Coleman for So Our Youth Aspire (SOYA), LLC (c) 2006