Module 11: young people and drugs - issues for workers: facilitator's guide

2.3 Developing and maintaining professional boundaries

Page last updated: 2004

The relationship between young people and worker is essentially one of trust and this can lead to situations where a young person may develop some level of emotional dependence.

Frontline workers often develop close relationships with young people and it is sometimes difficult to draw precise lines about what sort of behaviour is appropriate.

As workers, we cannot hope to be effective if our relationship with clients is too cold or distant, so it is often a matter of striking just the right balance.

Appropriate relationships with clients are those, which recognise that workers have enormous power in the lives of their clients. Young people with AOD problems are especially vulnerable and we should seek to maintain relationships which empower them as much as possible.

In all our relationships we set limits. Each of us has a boundary around us that defines who we are as individuals. The strength of our boundary depends on our relationship with the other person and on the context of that relationship. One of the key issues for workers is to be able to recognise when we may be crossing the invisible line which separates a client from a worker and which defines our relationship as professional and therefore workable.

Example scenarios
Personal reflection
Maintaining professional boundaries

Example scenarios

Example: A welfare worker worked with a young person for two years. They built up a good working relationship after some initial hostility and distrust. The young person moved to another area and the case was transferred to another office and another caseworker. It has been six months since the first worker and the young person have had contact.

The first worker decides that they would like to how that young person is doing. They use the client information system from their service to look up recent case notes and find out how that young person is.
Top of page
Question - Is this professional/unprofessional? Why?

Note – You may wish to extend the discussion by asking learners to outline some strategies whereby the worker could make appropriate enquiries about the progress of a young person.

Question - Would it ever be appropriate to contact the young person directly? If not, why not?

Question - What are the implications for the worker to continue checking on the progress of ex-clients?

Question - What are the implications for the young person?

Example: Two teachers are in a tea room at the local primary school and they teach kindergarten and second class. They have two little girls that are sisters, one in each of their classes. They both find it difficult to interact with the mother of these children who is often hostile and yells at them at times. This morning the mother attended the school and grabbed one of the teachers by the arm, threatening to slap her if she didn't teach her child more effectively. Both the teachers were distressed by this incident, and are in the tea room 'debriefing' and talking about the family and what they should do. There are other teachers in the tearoom on their break.

Question - Is this professional/unprofessional? Why?

Note – You may wish to discuss ways in which the incident could be debriefed more appropriately. Should other staff be involved in the process in any way?

Personal reflection

Task - writing exercise/group activity

Consider the following questions and write down your ideas. Discuss your answers with other learners.

Question - Young people often ask you about your personal life or your drug use. How do you deal with these types of questions?

Question - You are talking with a client in a designated smoking area at your workplace. Your client knows you are a smoker and offers you a cigarette. Is it appropriate to accept?

Question - You are working in a residential rehabilitation centre. A young client of the same sex embraces you in a non-sexual hug. What should you do?

Answer - It is a good idea to avoid self-disclosure unless you are confident that this will be helpful to the young person. For example, if a client asks you if you have ever had a drug problem they might be trying to find out if you can really understand their situation. Whatever you decide to tell them, it is important to focus on the need behind the question. You should avoid revealing irrelevant information about your personal life and try to keep the focus on the young person.

Many workers feel that it is important to provide positive role models for young people and that this can be best achieved by not smoking with clients. Even if a client knows that you smoke you can usually show restraint without offending. However, there is quite a lot of debate about this issue. What is the view of your fellow learners or fellow workers?

Some people say that physical contact with young people is never appropriate because it might be misinterpreted. Other workers say that young people are vulnerable and therefore it is appropriate to touch them in a non-sexual way. Keep in mind that young people who have suffered sexual or physical abuse may regard physical contact as intrusive and unwelcome. Ideally the client should always initiate physical contact. Physical contact of a sexual nature is never appropriate.
Top of page

Additional discussion questions

Workplace learning activity

Take some time to reflect on your own work experience.

Question - Have there been any situations where physical contact with a young person has been an issue for you or for another member of your team? (For example, some young female clients are especially prone to hugging or showing affection and this can sometimes be inappropriate, but rejecting and alienating young people is also not desirable.) How did you deal with the situation?

Question - Could you have handled the situation more effectively? How?

Question - Does your organisation have a policy in regard to physical contact?

Question - Is it possible to regulate physical and emotional relationships between clients and workers?

Question - Does the current climate of litigation mean that workers need legal protection in their day-to-day work?

Question - In what ways can workers protect themselves from accusations of misconduct?

In your work with young people your goal should be to establish and maintain a professional and effective working relationship. The boundaries between you and your clients should be clear to both parties. Sometimes we need to be very explicit when we work with young people, especially if they are vulnerable or very manipulative. The question for workers is how to recognise when these boundaries might be shifting or breaking down.

Maintaining professional boundaries

Task - writing exercise/group activity

Consider the following questions and write down your ideas. Discuss your answers with other learners.

Question - Suggest some signs that might indicate that boundaries are shifting?

Answer - You might consider that your relationship is drifting into something less than professional if you find yourself:
  • setting aside a lot of time for one particular client
  • staying back after hours with a particular client on a regular basis
  • meeting a client socially on a regular basis
  • finding yourself giving personal or irrelevant details about your own life
  • becoming aware that a client will do whatever you suggest, without question
  • becoming aware of sexual attraction to a client
  • becoming aware of strong attachment to a client
  • becoming aware of strong feelings of dislike for a client.
Question - If you recognise that your relationship with a client is becoming too intimate or that you have too much power and control over a young person, what can you do?
Top of page
  • Review your relationship with the young person
  • Re-establish boundaries with the young person by clarifying your role
  • Discuss the issue during your supervision session
  • Alter workplace arrangements so that the client is moved to a new worker
  • Arrange to share the case with another worker.
  • Take time to reflect on the quality of relationships outside of work. Do you have time to develop and nurture these relationships?
  • Think carefully about the best interests of the client. Are they being served?

Additional discussion questions

Task - brainstorm/writing exercise

You may know of situations where you or other workers have been concerned that boundaries were shifting or breaking down.

Question - How were you able to identify that this was occurring?

Question - How did you respond to this awareness?

Question - What could you have done differently?

Question - What would you do next time you sense that this is an issue for you or one of your team?

Question - In some work environments, it is possible that the general topic of boundary crossing can be raised at team meetings so that all workers can be sensitive to the issue and can deal with any problems before they develop into major issues. Is this a possibility at your workplace? If not, why not?