Focus Area 4: Ethics
2. Professional Behavior

One thing you can count on when working with young people – they are always watching you. They’re watching to see if what you say is what you do, if the standard you ask of them is the same standard you’re holding yourself to. They’re watching and they’re learning.

How you behave is usually more impactful than the words you use to motivate or share wisdom with youth. One way you empower youth to grow into healthy adults is by the unspoken messages you convey via modeling.

Youth work professionals need to understand the line between professional and unprofessional behavior.

The very nature of the caring adult relationship you cultivate with youth can unintentionally create conditions that blur the line. A youth may consider you a personal friend or develop a crush on you. They could develop expectations of closeness that your professional boundary would not permit.

You need to know what your role is in this professional relationship, what boundaries of behavior you have to respect, and how to educate the young people you work with about those boundaries. And youth need your help to learn how to distinguish between their friends and people whose job it is to work with them in a professional capacity.

Much of this section addresses establishing healthy and appropriate boundaries when working with youth. Some of this guidance may seem obvious to you but it never hurts to review the fundamentals to ensure your youth work practices align with the principles and values you just reviewed.


Youth work can be fun, funny, energetic, and spontaneous. Activities can get wild sometimes. This is not a problem, in and of itself. The challenge is that you can easily get caught up in the fun and forget that you still have to conduct yourself as a professional.

No matter how energetic things become, you are ultimately responsible for what comes out of your own mouth, and for your mannerisms. A good rule of thumb is, “Don’t talk or act in ways you wouldn’t want the youth to do.”


Sometimes, it feels like society as a whole now accepts or at least tolerates swearing and foul language. The prevalence of social media has provided an unfiltered means of communication.

Popular song lyrics often employ swearing and graphic references to sexual behavior. But just because swearing may be popular, doesn’t mean it’s professional.

As a youth work professional, you will need to consider how swearing fits in or doesn’t fit in to your interactions with young people.

Swearing should not to be used at all or only used with great caution. Just because youth may swear doesn’t give you permission to do so. From a practical perspective, if you want to make a strong point and emphasize something by swearing, it will not have much impact if youth hear you swearing frequently! 

Sexual Tone or Content

Talking with youth in a sexualized tone or with sexualized content is unwise. Any conversation or interaction that sexualizes your relationship with youth is an unhealthy practice. Does this mean you can never discuss the topic of sex with youth? No. Sexuality is a natural, healthy part of life.

Discussion of sexuality topics is different than sexualizing your relationship with youth. Guidelines for discussions on sexuality topics include:

  • The discussion should have a purpose with the best interests of the youth in mind and not your interests in mind.
  • The discussion should be conducted in a manner that is culturally appropriate and reflective of the youth’s developmental level.
  • The discussion should be done in accordance with your organization’s standards, policies, or procedures.

      How You Address a Youth

      This one might take a bit more thinking. Aside from sexualizing, one thing to keep in mind is that nicknames for a youth can be a label that unnecessarily constrains them. A nickname can be like placing the youth in a box. Even positively-toned nicknames can constrain.

      The following chart1 describes a number of appropriate and inappropriate ways of addressing or referring to youth. It is not an exhaustive list of possibilities, you may have others to add to the list, but this will start your thinking.

      Read through the items in the chart and choose whether this form of address would be appropriate or inappropriate in your work setting, using the color codes below:

      Green: Appropriate; a positive way to address a youth

      Yellow: Use with caution, could be inappropriate if misunderstood

      Red: Inappropriate; a negative way to address youth which you should always avoid.


      How to Address Youth




      By first name




      By terms of endearment
      (e.g. darling, love, hero, gorgeous, poor thing, etc.)




      By a staff-given nickname




      As a “friend”




      As a "boyfriend/girlfriend”




      As “lover”




      By derogatory or ridiculing terms (e.g. clever, stupid, idiot; or with sarcasm)





      The following chart2 describes a number of appropriate and inappropriate conversation topics. It is not an exhaustive list of possibilities.

      Read through the items in the chart and choose whether this general topic of conversation would be appropriate or inappropriate in your work setting, using the color codes below:

      Green: Appropriate; a positive way to address a youth

      Yellow: Use with caution, could be inappropriate if misunderstood

      Red: Inappropriate; a negative way to address youth which you should always avoid.

      Conversation Topics




      The weather




      TV programs




      Youth’s family




      Staff member’s family




      Personal relationships of staff member




      Personal political views




      Personal views about the service provider or organization




      Personal relationships of youth




      Sensitive or controversial issues (e.g. contraception, abortion, adoption, divorce, etc.)




      Topics of a sexual nature (e.g. kissing, sexual intercourse, masturbation, pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, etc.)




      Sometimes, even an appropriate topic of conversation may need to be avoided, depending on the circumstances and situation. As a general guideline about whether or not to talk about these topics, consider your own motivation. Ask yourself:

      • What would the purpose of this conversation be?
      • Is this topic and conversation really in the best interests of the youth?
      • Is it really necessary to talk about this topic in this context?

      Finally, how you talk about topics is also an important factor. For example, there may be contexts where it is appropriate to talk about pornography with youth. However, why you are talking about it and how you talk about it will make a large difference in determining whether it is healthy and appropriate for the youth you are working with.


      The use of social media has exploded and its use is certainly common among youth. Used well, social media can be a good way to connect with youth. As with any tool, it needs to be used appropriately and within the bounds of ethical, professional behavior.

      A good starting point is to ask your supervisor if your organization has a social media policy. If they do not, it’s good practice to apply the same rules and principles of professional practice in the digital environment as you would in the face-to-face environment.

      • If it is appropriate and allowable to use your social media profile with youth (e.g., using Facebook with youth you are working with) it should only be used during your work hours (shifts) at the organization unless there are extenuating circumstances and it has been previously agreed upon with your supervisor.
      • It is important to send a standard message to all new youth “friends” outlining terms of the relationship.
      • It is best to keep a record of all social media communication with youth.
      • It is a good policy to not post anything remotely personal on youth’s walls, etc. to protect their privacy.
      • It is best to not search (‘trawl’) youth’s news feeds or profiles looking for info about them.
      • If a youth approaches you in social media outside of your organizational profile, consider whether your agency allows you to have such contact. If not, consider how you can politely decline and explain why while referring the youth to the organization’s social media profile.
      • Adopt a policy of not saying anything to a youth via social media that you would not say with your supervisor present.
      • When you are communicating with a young person via social media, exercise and uphold the same rules and principles of confidentiality (including referring and reporting), sexual boundaries, professional behavior just as you would when interacting with them in person.

                    In a nutshell, when interacting via social media with youth whom you serve, do so in alignment with ethical commitments, duty of care, and your organization’s social media policy3.

                    DRESS AND APPEARANCE

                    In general, workplace dress has become more casual over time. Sometimes, it can be challenging to know what appropriate attire for work is. If your workplace does have a dress code policy in place, it’s a little easier to be sure of what’s expected. Just be sure to adhere to those requirements.

                    But if there is no dress code policy, you’ve got to use your own good judgment about your overall appearance. To help you choose what is appropriate attire to wear in your workplace, it is helpful to ask yourself:

                    What impact could this wardrobe choice have on the youth I am working with and how they perceive me?
                    Am I making this choice with my personal agenda in mind (e.g. to get attention, to provoke sexual attraction, to be controversial, etc.) or with the youth’s best interest in mind?

                    Youth will sometimes perceive a youth worker as sexual – they’re young and may not yet fully understand the boundaries of your professional relationship. There is no way to completely avoid this, particularly when working with teens. What you can avoid is having youth sexualize you because of the things you do – your actions, your words, your mannerisms, your appearance, or choice of attire.

                    SEXUAL FEELINGS

                    Do youth workers ever have sexual feelings about the youth they work with? The answer is yes. Sexual feelings in and of themselves do not signal trouble. However, they can lead to trouble if you act upon them.

                    There are always warning signs to watch for and check yourself on:

                    • Experiencing sexual feelings for a particular youth frequently
                    • Favoring a certain youth or treating one youth more harshly than others
                    • Having sexual feelings that are getting in the way of you doing your work effectively
                    • Talking with a youth in sexualized ways
                    • Having trouble in your personal romantic/sexual life that might cause you to seek satisfaction in other relationships
                    • Making attempts to spend time with the youth alone
                    • Having thoughts about or engaging in planning to be with the youth in a physical way

                    Your employer may have already provided training on this topic. It is likely that your agency has very specific rules and requirements for youth workers about the professional boundaries in place to avoid abusing your power and position with youth.

                    Following your organization’s policies, rules and regulations will ensure the safety of the youth you serve. Adhering to ethical practices and healthy boundaries of your professional relationship with youth will keep you out of trouble.

                    But if you are experiencing any of these feelings or warning signs, the best step is to talk with a trusted adult immediately. If that does not lead to a turnaround, it is imperative you talk with your supervisor.

                    The bottom line: Never act on these feelings with a youth!

                    Shout-out to self-care: MINDFUL ACCEPTANCE OF FEELINGS

                    Successfully navigating stress allows you to be a more effective youth worker over the long run. There are many approaches to managing stress, but a particular technique to know about is Mindful Acceptance of Feelings. It is particularly helpful for difficult feelings.

                    Mindful acceptance of feelings involves:

                    • Experiencing a feeling (e.g. worry) and allowing yourself to feel it fully. Accept that you are feeling it at this very moment.
                    • Letting the thoughts be there - and then letting them pass by. For example, when worry-related thoughts start, there is no need to engage with the thoughts or add to them.
                    • Reminding yourself, “I am just a human being experiencing this feeling at this moment.”

                      Mindful acceptance often allows you to be less controlled by unpleasant feelings. No feeling lasts forever, especially if you don’t run away from it and if you don’t add numerous other thoughts to it.

                      Give it a try. And if you find this a useful exercise, add it to your personalized self-care plan.

                      Reference Sources

                      1 and 2Adapted from Cooperation & Working Together (CAWT) handouts for “Creating and Maintaining Professional Relationships and Boundaries between Staff and Service Users”

                      3 Adapted from: Social Media Policy Guide (Youth Action and Policy Association, New South Wales, Australia)

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