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Boundary Crossing: The Slippery Slope
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Friday July 01, 2011
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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Scenario: You have counseled Cedric for two years. He pops in for counseling whenever something is on his mind, and this can include late afternoons after wrestling practice when he sees you are still plugging away in your office. You try to show loyalty to him by never turning him away regardless of the time or place. Additionally, you seek him out to check on him when a week or two goes by and he has not made an impromptu visit to your office. You consider these exchanges with Cedric important as his chaotic family life makes him especially vulnerable. He has never known his dad, his mother is an infrequent presence due to drug abuse and his grandmother, who is his most constant, is frail and physically limited. Cedric is a talented wrestler and seems to find a healthy escape in the sport, but no one in his family has ever seen him wrestle. You have decided you will go to his next match, which is 140 miles away to be held at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night.

Have you crossed any boundaries? What if you added that you plan to take Cedric out for a celebratory or conciliatory bite to eat afterward and then drive him home?

If you did not consider the first scenario a boundary crossing does this change once you added the dinner and drive home?

When I have posed a similar ethical dilemma (minus the dinner and ride home) to workshop participants, roughly 20 percent have taken the position that they will go to the wrestling match. They are perplexed when asked to debate their position with the opposing side because they are unable to identify why it should be an issue. These well-meaning school counselors want to support their student. The opposing side has no problem identifying why they consider going to the match problematic. The answers run the gamut from the humorous, “The price of gas is too high,” to the pragmatic, “I need time off,” to the sober, “I am afraid this student will think I have a romantic interest in him.” Once the ride home and dinner are added, almost 100 percent of participants will say “no” to this arrangement.

A boundary crossing is a departure from the verbal and physical distances normally maintained in a counseling interaction. Respecting the boundaries between school counselor and student is a hallmark of the counseling profession. Once minor professional distance is breached it becomes easier to soften, blur and then violate a boundary.

Counselors of every stripe have long recognized the need to turn the highly charged atmosphere of the counseling dyad into a safe space for the counselee's intimate explorations. The counseling profession developed boundary lines out of the effort to take advantage of the benefits while minimizing the risks of the emotional dynamics of the dyad. Appropriate boundaries have been carefully crafted and built as a protection of the student, who is turning to the school counselor for help, to keep violations such as emotional dependency or the most egregious violation, sexual abuse, from ever being perpetrated.

Secure boundaries of time and place give the counseling frame structure, security and predictability. Boundary violations often begin in three basic areas: role, time and place.

Role: We are working with minors who are still developmentally immature, mandated to be in our settings and are susceptible to becoming too attached to us or to misinterpret our attention as other than advocacy. In this complex role, there is also the danger of counter-transference, which is when a school counselors projects his or her own unresolved needs and conflicts onto the student or a more damaging boundary violation. School counselors are careful not to blur the scope of their school counseling role with broader roles, such as being a student’s friend, surrogate parent, outside school support or always-on-call counselor. Without question the school counselor’s role is that of advocate and supporter, but there is a line that needs to be respected. As much as this student needs a positive adult to take an interest in him, there is concern and sometimes a danger when developmentally immature students start distorting in their own mind why their school counselor is moving far outside the scope and boundaries of the normal school counselor/student relationship.

Cedric’s life has been compromised with disrupted attachments. It appears he lacks a protective and loving caregiver, and except for his grandmother, who is limited in what she can do, he is missing the safety and security that comes from a protective, attentive parent. He needs support, warmth and positive regard. Going to an away game, alone, and setting up an opportunity for a meal after the match seems like a gift to give this student, but there are ways to be just as supportive without confusing the role of school counselor with that of caregiver. The school counselor could send Cedric a note of support the Friday before the game and follow up on Monday to ask about how it went. The whole team could be recognized for its efforts on the Monday morning announcements. Other efforts might include accessing resources such as the Big Brother Big Sisters program, finding an agency that gives rides for the medically challenged so his grandmother might be able to at least attend a home game and/or finding a mentor for Cedric.

Our role is also defined by what we can reasonably do for other students who need support just as much as Cedric. We try to provide within reason what each child needs and not cast a blanket that everyone has to be treated the same when clearly some students have greater needs. Yet, this differentiation of support does not mean we violate boundaries that have long been established for the protection of school counselor and student. Making such an effort on Cedric’s behalf is quite beyond the boundaries when contrasted with what we are able to do for other students equally as needy as Cedric.

Time: Cedric is allowed to pop in at will to see the school counselor. This flexibility isn’t unusual because of the nature of schools and the school counselor’s role. It is not that school counselors want to rigidly say, “I cannot see you without an appointment” and turn students away; however, to regularly support or encourage overly fluid arrangements can feed unhealthy school counselor/student relationships. The issue of counseling outside normal working hours is so important to the counseling profession that when a counselor is going to work with a student beyond the work day hours, there should be at the very least an informal consideration of the necessity and risks and efforts to find an alternative structure so that boundaries can be maintained.

Place: A long drive to a match, a dinner and then a ride home between Cedric and his school counselor is not a benign event. Boundary violations do not necessarily arise from bad character. When school counselors do not recognize boundary crossings, innocent acts merely intended to be supportive can spiral downward to boundary violations such as counter-transference or worse. Egregious boundary violations are usually preceded by relatively minor boundary excursions.

School counselors are continuously balancing the complex work of trying to show loyalty and support with developmentally immature students. This work is fraught with shades of gray and requires a hyper-vigilance on the school counselor’s part to avoid boundary crossings, which can lead to the slippery slope of boundary violations. Any deviation from standard practice should cause school counselors to reflect on their rationale for the action. Finding other ways to support Cedric is safer for him and the school counselor’s professional longevity.

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., is a professor at the University of North Florida and co-chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. Contact the author for references to this article.