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Boundaries

Query from Twen Tesfalidet

Boundaries -- I struggle to understand what boundaries mean. I am a CYC student and our teachers really stress the boundaries issue mainly to protect ourselves. However, I am really apprehensive, almost scared, about this issue because sometimes I think what if I put my arms around a child who is really sad, would this child (or my co-worker for that matter) misunderstand my intention? I am really paranoid about this -- most students that I talked to say the safest thing to do is not to have any physical contact. But if I couldn't comfort a child who is sad wouldn't that make me a heartless person who can't show compassion. What do you think? I would like to hear from you.

— January 2002
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Two helpful things on the CYC-NET web site: 1. Go to www.cyc-net.org/threads/touch.html for the thread of a previous discussion on this subject 1. Go to www.cyc-net.org/journals/jcyc12-3.html for the Editorial "On the Fear of Contact, the Need for Touch, and Creating Youth Care Contexts Where Touching is Okay." – Eds.
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I've read through many of the postings/responses concerning the issue of professional boundaries within the child and youth care profession. I find this topic interesting because often issues surrounding boundaries really boil down to a matter of perception. I read one posting where the individual was discussing how a staff member disclosed her past experience of rape with a resident(s). It seems quite obvious how this could be construed as a boundary violation, and in that case probably was; however, I think it would also depend upon the context in which this information was shared. If this info. was shared in the context of a trusting, well developed, caring therapeutic counseling environment as a way to say "hey, I can relate to your pain because I've been through it myself, and just to let you know, there's a way through the pain and anger you're feeling right now", then in my opinion I would not deem that as a boundary violation. What one person deems a boundary violation another person would not, again a matter of perception/perspective. Of course, there are certain, across-the-board behaviors that most professionals would deem crossing the line, and damaging towards the youth we work with such as; intimate relations, manipulation for criminal purposes, physical abuse and so forth ... When it comes to matters of personal disclosure, such as the above example, again I really feel it depends on the context. The question to ask is "what is the motivation behind my expressing/sharing this particular thought, action, feeling, or experience?" If the answer, the honest to god truth, to this question has anything at all to do with yourself than that's probably an indication that a boundary is being crossed. However, if you can honestly say it has everything to do with the youth you're dealing with you're probably on the right track. It really boils down to honest self evaluation and constantly checking our motives and intent behind all actions. Also, as another respondent pointed out, within an agency a good way to practice consistent boundary practices among staff is to have a clear and precise code of ethics that all the workers are aware of, and thus are encouraged to follow, and held accountable to.

Crystal-Lee Hill
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Let's be careful about the term "boundaries". For me the word refers to the parameters of the "self". As such, "boundaries" are more about making contact than self-protection - hence the term "contact boundary". If you wish to know more about this, feel free to contact me. I have explained this use of the term in many articles etc. If people want to protect themselves from their clients in some way, lets dream up another word - how about "walls".

Gerry Fewster
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The boundary issues continues to be as grey as it ever was by the sounds of it. Crystal made some great comments, I just can't agree that we leave it up to our own perspectives and perceptions. I think that any time the therapeutic relationship can be blurred, then it is a boundary issue. Like Crystal, I think that the therapeutic relationship can only remain therapeutic as long as the therapists isn't looking for their own therapy in disclosing. It is too simple of an explanation to say "I disclosed...." so it would help the client, when in fact in may be more self-gratifying to do so. When the client offers console to you, this may be the time to recognize, you crossed it. The little things like going to a family's garage sale or buying chocolate bars from a family for a school fundraiser also should create in our minds the same thinking, can this blur the therapeutic relationship. Simple situations, not such a simple answer?

Jon Deactis
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Crystal-Lee talked about the motivation behind disclosure ... "if you can honestly say it has everything to do with the youth you're dealing with you're probably on the right track ... "

I would have to say that while that may be true, it also may not be. Even if I as a worker have good intentions in sharing something, I also have to do more than that. I have to know the youth. If the youth is the sort of person who worries for others to an extent that even without my intending them to do so, they take on my pain, I've crossed that person's boundaries. It is fine to say that we are each responsible for ourselves, and that if the youth chooses to do that it's about them, but we are the adults. We have to take a certain amount of responsibility for our actions. I can think of an example. Another child and youth care worker I worked with was sick - nothing too serious, but the person was going to have surgery. One of the youth in a group we were doing had lost a parent to illness. As soon as the youth heard about this pending operation the youth freaked. There was no need to tell that youth the information and unnecessarily frighten the person. Yes, the worker meant no harm, and yes, harm was still done to the youth because the worker wasn't there to deal with what was triggered.

Tania Brzovic
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I have enjoyed reading this thread with regard to boundaries. In all truth, I have crossed the boundaries in the past and have come to learn from my mistakes. I am very grateful to the lessons taught by the lecturers of NACCW with regard to boundaries and the establishment thereof in our profession as Child & Youth Care Workers. My mistake was, that I became a little too personally involved in a particular young lady placed in care and walked away very emotionally drained. This was the result of crossing the boundary and since then have learnt a very valuable lesson. Crossing the boundary can become very tempting, especially with a client that one has built up a good relationship with and results have been achieved. We are professional people in the field and need to keep ourselves in check at all times.

Kaz Vickerman
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I believe that touching all depends on the situation, the context, and the youth. Some youths are just trying to touch you sexually, and take advantage of the situation, while others really want and need hugs, or touches. I think that you should discuss with the youth why they feel that they need a hug etc. For example, there is one girl at the place where I do my practicum that has no family at all. If the staff do not nurture and hug her where will she get that from? Probably not from a positive place/person. It is a hard decision to make but I believe that everyone needs nurturing and touch and if the youth ask you for it, they probably need it for a reason.

Kellie A.
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I believe you can hug a child if that youth is feeling sad and just needs a hug. Sometimes actions are louder than words. Go with your gut feeling. I don't believe you can do any harm with a hug, your placing your hand on their hand. Just be aware of the client's needs and wants. I believe you have to know the client first before doing this. This is a big concern, believe me this topic is being discussed in my Child and Youth Care course, however sometimes you just need to hug the child.

Stephanie Crofts
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I have been following these responses over the past couple of months. I agree that there need to be boundaries, and certainly in the realm of disclosure. I work as a relief houseparent in a 4 resident semi-independent home for teens. I had serious problems with the residents and their respecting my boundaries when I was told by the residents that the housemother had told them that she smoked pot. I live in a community where this is a huge issue amongst the youth. It made my job more difficult in that the residents had little respect for my not revealing my personal information and I was constantly met with "well ...... told us and she told us this etc. I was not supported by my supervisor in this as she seemed to feel that the houseparent was free to tell whatever information she wanted to the residents. I felt then and feel now, that was irresponsible of this housemother, and frankly feel that it was abusive of her. We are there to provide supervision, not encourage behaviors because we ourselves may indulge in certain personal behaviors.

The point being, that boundaries that are clear are an asset to the youth, and help protect the worker.

Carolyn Campbell
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I've been watching this thread regarding boundaries for some time now and felt the need to respond as I am also a CYC student. My learning and awareness of boundaries seems to have been different than what you have experienced and I was struck by your comment "our teachers really stress the boundaries issue mainly to protect ourselves".
Boundary work is greatly stessed within the program that I attend and I have had the privaledge of attending classes instructed by Gerry Fewster who, you will read throughout this thread, is passionate about the necessity of boundaries in relationship. Never has boundary work been about protecting oneself professionally or putting up walls, in my experience. Always, it has been about growth, bringing yourself fully to another and ensuring healthy relationships. Boundaries are about connecting. They are vital in establishing any relationship, whether that be professional or personal. Without boundaries I do not believe a relationship is truly possible. For myself they are not about professional safety or protection and, with proper boundaries established, I believe many of the issues discussed regarding touch etc.. become non issues within those boundaries.
I encourage you to explore some of the articles written by Gerry as I believe they may shed a different light on your experience of boundaries thus far and offer a greater knowledge of what boundaries actually are as opposed to what many perceive them to be.

Eliza Storrie
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I am currently a student in the Child and Youth Care program in Canada and I agree with you completely about boundary issues around children who are sexually reactive but also around any of the children we work with on a daily basis. Children who have issues around their sexuality or sex in general are confused enough without the counsellors confusing them further with undistinguished boundaries. The thing that concerned me the most was the part where you said the counsellor were asking the children to keep secrets or vice-versa. Children should never be told that you will keep a secret because if you tell them that and learn something that may be harmful to them you have to tell someone. When that child finds out the person they trusted told you may loose any relationship you have built with that child. I believe there are many ways to build a trusting and respectful relationship with these children but the boundaries have to be solid and they have to be explained to the children right from the very beginning. You don't have to buy children gifts and share secrets to build these relationships. I don't know if any of this helped but I hope some of what I have said makes sense to you and your staff. There are a couple of books we used in our courses one is called Reclaiming Youth at Risk; Our Hope Our Future, by Larry K. Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Bockern, and another is The Spirit Weeps, by Tony Martens

Rene Hartley
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I'm with Fewster on this one. Walls are what we use to keep people 'out' - to protect ourselves from others. I think of boundaries as the place where we meet - where you begin and I end. I worry about thinking of boundaries as a mechanism of self-protection, although knowing yourself, including where you begin and end, is always a nice way to ensure self-care.
I worry that when we think of boundaries as a form of self-protection, we encourage people to walk around afraid. Afraid of the client, afraid of contact, afraid of being hurt. And when we walk around afraid, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be present with other.

I think that sometimes in the early stages of professional development, we encourage new workers to think like this - the end result is that we end up thinking of clients as potential sources of hurt, harmful, threatening - rather than as people. At the risk of offending, I suspect that there might be a difference of opinion about the meaning of boundaries depending on the stage of one's professional and personal development.

Thom Garfat
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I appreciated Thom's comments on the issue of boundaries and touch. Right-on! In his comments he talked about holding each other accountable and the need to respectfully care for youth. I would also want to be able to document or talk about physical contact with youth. We are required to do this if we are involved in a restraint and it may be a good practice to make physical contact notes. In this way a supervisor would be able to see if one or two staff are doing all the physical touch or is it one youth who is receiving all the physical attention. By recording physical touch between staff and youth or youth and youth, which must be acceptable if staff are going to be physical with youth, behavior cycles or patterns and emotional strength and stability can be evaluated and assessed.

Human touching is either a humanizing of dehumanizing event and it is very difficult to determine the difference between these two interpretations of a situation. If a youth or adult is attempting to manipulate or attempting to control the emotional state of the other then it is dehumanizing person's perspective even though the one receiving the physical touch may have actually felt cared for, supported and nurtured.

Sadly, emotional needs of people are being met by those who are trying to takeadvantage of others.

Again, if you have not taken the time to read the editorial by Thom on the need for touch, it is worth it. I have all staff read this as a part of the yearly training for all staff since this issue always comes up. Find this at www.cyc-net.org/journals/jcyc12-3.html

Larry James
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Hi...I'd like to play in this sand box too!

I quite often get my knickers in a knot when I perceive that I am being invited to choose or focus on one side of a paradoxical argument over the other. For me, one example would be the debate of nature vs. nurture, and a second example would be the debate of boundaries for connection vs. boundaries for separation or protection of Self. I personally don't believe that the purpose of boundaries is an either or proposition....it's both. I believe we need clear boundaries to protect the integrity of Self and other and to connect with Self and others. For me there is no possibility of a connection unless there has been a separateness. I also believe that there is a time and place for every degree of boundaries from loose and flowing to absolute walls. I think the trick is in the ability to choose in the moment what is most appropriate for the relationship with Self and others. I am thinking of the qualitative difference in the boundaries between a nursing mom and babe and the boundaries between an adolescent who is attempting to ward off unwanted sexual advances of another. Clearly there is a place for walls as there is for intimacy and connection.

Colleen Macpherson
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I attended my son's Christmas concert this week. During the concert, one young student was accompanied to the stage by a teacher's assistant. The young student seemed overwhelmed by the evening - the crowd, the noise, the spirit. About half way through the class' number, she could not continue and sat on the TA's knee who was kneeling beside her throughout the song. The student placed her face against her TA's and cried. This gesture was received and returned with a gentle pat on the back, whispers in her ear and a hug. The student was able to rise and complete the song with her classmates.

While sitting there, I briefly thought of the risk that TA was taking, but then I thought of the importance of the touch that student received. In fact, the touch extended off that stage and on to me. It was the nicest touch I received in a long time!

Paul Moore
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On the subject of boundaries. I think I have said this before, If we need to intentionally establish boundaries to protect our own emotional state we may want to evaluate our place in youth care. I would hope, that as adults, we have a good understanding of our selves so that our boundary issues do not become clouded with those of the youth. I know that at times this may happen and that is where other trusted supervisors and staff will help keep us keep focused and provide perspective. The issues with boundaries is one, I hope, more for the youth we serve than for us. Most youth in care have very poor sense of boundaries. This may because of the institutional effect, the family system, a result of trauma or because of a internal or organic problem which inhibits the development of a differentiated self. As youth care workers one of our primary responsibilities is to help youth come to an understanding of the self in relationship to others. To help them accomplish this developmental task we need to set, enforce and consequate boundary crossings in a respectful manner. This is how they will learn spatial concepts of other's property and person. This is a brief statement on a complex issue. I always enjoy hearing more expansive and challenging approaches.

Larry James
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Thanks Paul for that story! Once again that gesture leapt off my computer screen and into my life as well. More stories! I need more stories!

Ernie Hilton
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To move this "boundaries and touch" discussion to another place ...

I was having dinner at a rural children's home with the married couple who ran one of the cottages. They were telling me of a young girl of 13 or 14 who had been with them for about a year. Her mother was in and out of rehab and father was serving a long prison sentence. They had been troubled by the girl's resistance to any form of affection or touch -- saying goodnight with a stroke of her hair caused her to squirm out of reach; a hug or an arm around the shoulder when she had done well in some activity was always resisted, a style matched by her emotional 'apart-ness'. The adults spent a lot of time talking, affirming, encouraging, etc., but never, over the whole year, getting more than the most tentative response.

Then, the previous Saturday afternoon, when the husband was arriving home from a sports match, as he passed the girl she put out her hand towards him and he responded with a similar gesture towards her. She slid her hand into his, and as he greeted her and smiled he gave her hand a light squeeze, and moved on.

The couple were describing how they had continued, very slowly, with this reaching out over the past week, and how the Saturday afternoon had clearly been a watershed - the girl seemed finally to have passed from a mistrust to a trust. Then quite suddenly the wife began to cry. I reassured her by saying that this sign of progress had been very moving, but she replied: "Yes, but that isn't why I cried. You see, we are about to tell the children in the cottage that next month we are going to leave the program ..."

Now I know that in better resourced places we have more sophisticated assessment and interventions for a youngster like this, and also that this girl may have represented and unusual case(?). But the story from this modest group home raises for me the question of our responsibility for actively moving children towards a capacity for touch and intimacy when this seems developmentally and clinically necessary, rather than being ourselves frozen into a "correct" and safe professional caution. It raises the question of adolescents' next development stage of young adulthood (in Eriksonian terms) of intimacy and risk, and how well we are working with them towards this. I feel that in a case like this the environment we offer should be a far richer human soup than much of our talk of boundaries and protection suggests.

And (again referring to this particular child but feel free to generalise as appropriate) "if not us, then who?"

Brian Gannon

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