Maintaining appropriate boundaries is an important aspect of working with adults and/or children in a “helping role”. While you are not necessarily at your site to “help” the youth with their problems, it is important to be clear with the youth and yourself regarding your purpose at the site so that appropriate boundaries can be maintained.

Many of you will be working with elementary aged children, while some of you might work with adolescents. Regardless, you are an adult in the eyes of the youth you are working with. Therefore, you must set a positive example for the youth at all times. You are at the site to not only be a “friend” and “helper” to the youth, but also a role model.

The concept of boundaries is difficult to define. But, overall, personal boundaries can be physical and emotional. Many people would define physical boundaries as “personal space”. Think about your “personal space” for a minute and what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable: these are your boundaries. When another person respects your physical personal space – you feel comfortable. When someone violates your physical personal space (by getting too close) – you feel uncomfortable.

Many youth will immediately invite you into their personal space (and perhaps invade yours!) by hugging you, holding your hand, and generally hanging on you. It is up to you as the adult person to decide what you are comfortable with and more importantly, what is appropriate in your physical interactions with youth.

You will likely find a wide range of boundaries in the youth you are working with. Some youth will likely be very outgoing and open, while others may be more withdrawn. It is important to be sensitive to this wide range of boundaries by treating each youth as an individual. For example, one youth might be perfectly comfortable giving you a hug goodbye, while another youth may not. One youth might be comfortable disclosing personal information to you, while another youth may not. Do not assume that just because one youth is comfortable with these things, that all youth are comfortable with these things. Take a cue from the youth, or just ask! But, do not make assumptions. And don’t ever force the youth to do anything he/ she is uncomfortable with.

Emotional boundaries can be thought of as your emotional personal space. While our physical personal space is most often violated through touching/physical contact, our emotional boundaries are most often violated by words. Think of how you feel when someone asks you personal questions you are not comfortable answering, or when someone calls you names or criticizes you, or when someone makes a promise to you and does not keep it. Most likely, this feels badly. Your emotional boundaries have been violated. Therefore, it is important to remember in your interactions with the youth to use honesty and positive reinforcement, and respect. Remember that you are the adult.
The concept of boundaries also varies by culture and ethnicity. What is “normal” or “appropriate” to you might not be normal or appropriate with persons with an ethnic or cultural background that is different from yours. In addition, boundaries change w/ age. What is appropriate in your interactions with younger children might not be appropriate when interacting with older children. If you have questions on what is culturally or age appropriate, ask another staff-person at the site or the course instructor.

Having a healthy sense of physical and emotional boundaries is what allows a person to trust others and yet still keep him/herself safe. It is important to have a sense of your own personal boundaries and to be respectful of the boundaries of the youth at your site.