Focus Area 4: Ethics
3. Setting & Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

Youth work is people work, relational work. Accomplishing good work with youth depends upon having good relationships with them. An important aspect of healthy relationships is healthy boundaries.

However, the casualness of your work with youth may sometimes lull you into letting down your guard regarding the need to maintain the healthy boundaries of a professional relationship. Crossing boundaries as a youth worker is unwise and could potentially harm or endanger a young person.

Some boundaries will be very obvious to you. They will be clear and definitive, like the boundary of no sexual activity with youth. Others may seem less distinct, less clear-cut, or may even be situational, or up to a youth worker’s personal judgment, like decision-making boundaries.

When in doubt, always default to the position and perspective of doing what is in the best interests of the young person. And if you are totally unsure about any boundary questions, by all means consult and confer with your supervisor for guidance.


When discussing the importance of setting and maintaining boundaries, you need to recognize that there are various kinds of relationship boundaries. Here are eight types of boundaries for you to consider: 

1. Responsibility Boundaries

Who is responsible for what? Dr. Betty Phillips said it well: “We are responsible TO each other, not FOR each other. This means that each person refuses to rescue or enable another’s immature behavior.” 

2. Role Boundaries

What are my roles and what are your roles?

3. Emotion and Feelings-related Boundaries

Included here is knowing what your own feelings and needs are and what another person’s feelings and needs are and knowing that they do not have to be the same. For example, a youth worker might want to be friendly with a youth but demanding that the youth be a friend would be violating the youth’s boundaries.

In youth work, learning to differentiate your own thoughts and feelings from those of others is a vital skill. It will help you better respect others.

You also need to be aware of violating young people’s emotional boundaries through ridicule, arbitrariness, subtle threats, and insistence on conformity. Also, be alert to destructive uses of humor that are covered with a “just joking” response.

4. Privacy Boundaries

Each of us deserves to know that some things will be private. But in the midst of fast-paced social interaction, sometimes it is unclear what is meant to be private. Better to err on the side of presuming that something said is private.

Try putting yourself in the other’s shoes: Would I want this to remain private? With what I know about this youth, would they prefer this to be private? Additionally, youth generally have a right to choose what they disclose and to whom.

5. Power and Control Boundaries

Here you ask questions like, “Who has the power to make decisions?” and “Which decisions do they have the power to make?” With power comes responsibility.

6. Personal and Professional Life Boundaries

This one arises often in youth work. Frequently it comes in the form of, “What is appropriate for me to self-disclose in this situation?”

A concrete example would be the issue of giving your home address or phone number to a youth.

It is well worth being extra vigilant in deciding what is appropriate to disclose. It is wise to ask yourself:

  • Why am I considering disclosing this?
  • Would disclosing this really help the youth or would I be doing it more for my self-interests?

7. Relationship Boundaries

Favoritism is a subtle way for relationship boundaries to go awry. It is natural to like some youth more than others. However, you must be mindful of treating each youth with respect and dignity and to try to give each what they need.

8. Physical Privacy Boundaries

The personal space that is comfortable varies by person, situation, and culture.

Not only will you benefit from practicing setting healthy boundaries in your personal and professional life, but it will also help you to notice when youth are establishing healthy or unhealthy boundaries. This will allow you, as a youth worker, to be a positive influence and role model for youth.

Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries does not happen automatically. It does takes vigilance and work to develop and maintain healthy boundaries with the youth you serve. With more experience, establishing appropriate boundaries gets easier and becomes more natural. 

The best advice to avoid violating any boundaries is to always remember your ethical obligation to act in the best interests of youth.

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