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Be Aware of Your Ethical Dilemmas in Youth Work


Ethical dilemmas in youth work happen all the time and they often go unrecognized. These situations can be so subtle that you may react without consideration to the origins of your behaviors.

My first psychology class as a graduate student provided me insight that I still use every day for nearly every decision I make: To act in an ethical manner you must always know why you do what you do.

It sounds easy, but it takes a lot of work to consider situational factors before you react or choose your course of action. You must be mindful of motivations for your actions.

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          Understanding ethical dilemmas is critical for anyone that works with youth

          As a youth worker, all of your actions must be for the benefit of the youth you serve and not about meeting your own needs. There are endless ethical dilemmas that arise when considering whose needs are being met, but here are just a few to consider:

          • Unfinished business – There are undoubtedly situations in your past that did not resolve in a manner you would have preferred. As a result, situations will arise in your work now that could cause you to act in a manner that is triggered by past events.
          • Transference – Some young people you work with will consciously or unconsciously remind you of people from your past or your present. Depending on your opinion of that person, you may unknowingly act more favorably or harshly toward the young person in the situation.
          • Power issues – Working with young people typically puts you in a position of power. This power dynamic can be intentionally or unintentionally used to compensate for some of your own insecurities.
          • Boundaries – The instinct to share your own personal experiences with young people is tempting and it must be carefully considered before you choose to disclose. Self-disclosure can help the youth, but only if disclosing is not more about resolving your own issues.

          There are endless ethical dilemmas that youth workers must be aware of. Without being aware and careful to take them into consideration, you may unintentionally cause harm to the young people you intend to help.

          Training about the subtleties of ethical dilemmas is a great place to learn how they affect you

          Kate Walker is an Associate Extension professor and Extension specialist at the University of Minnesota and focuses on ethics. She and her colleague, Kathryn Sharpe, provide an excellent online training called, Ethical Dilemmas in Youth Work that will help you understand what ethical dilemmas are and how to handle them by better understanding yourself. It is free to YIPA members.

          To ensure youth workers have the insights they need to navigate ethical dilemmas, this training will:

          • Address the five categories of dilemmas based on research.
          • Explore the learner’s stance on a set of real-world dilemma scenarios.
          • Examine principles and values that guide ethical youth work practice.

          There are multiple strategies to improve your knowledge, skills and confidence regarding ethical dilemmas in youth work. This training is just one example of a tactic that will help you realize how subtle ethical dilemmas in youth work can be.

          As a youth worker, it’s imperative you continuously develop a better understanding of your motives and behaviors if you want to have the greatest positive impact on the youth you serve.

          About the author

          Paul Meunier is the executive director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

          To ask Paul a question or share your feedback about this blog, email

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