Understanding Physical Boundaries

Understanding Physical Boundaries is intended for adults who work with young people in a professional capacity, or, are with children and teens within faith communities and other youth-serving organizations.

Understanding Physical Boundaries

Let’s face it, we work in a “hard-hat” area! When working with children and teens, understanding boundaries is perhaps the most important concept and discipline that we need to be aware of each and every day. If you’ve hardly ever given this a moment’s  thought, you should have. (And, mind you, as a matter of principle, I rarely use the word “should!) But really, checking in where you are in your own head and heart is vitally important when it comes to understanding boundaries, (theirs and yours) and then maintaining appropriate professional boundaries, every hour of every day when you’re on the job or with young people in any number of ways.

Understanding Physical Boundaries. Kevin with children
Kevin and friends

Men working with youth are especially at risk too. And like it or not, the burden is upon men to be especially aware of not just their own boundaries, but of the perceptions others may have or hold about your interactions with children and teens. Statistically, we know that the vast majority of predators of abuse upon children are males (92%), and with that sad reality comes the need to be extra diligent and principled at all times. The trick, it seems, is to find ways to set good examples of practicing healthy and appropriate boundaries and remain approachable and real to the young people who you work with at the same time.

And the minefield continues. It’s important to understand the many variances of cultural, racial and ethnic norms when it comes to the overall topic of boundaries. Some people hail from traditions that have socially embedded expectations of comfort zones in terms of physical closeness and contact between themselves as consumers and you as an attending and “real” professional or as a trained volunteer within a faith community or youth-serving program. A big, full-embrace hug between you, the caregiver, and the client leaving your office or program for the week may be a true sign of “connection” and acceptance for her, but feel awkward or uncomfortable for you. When this happens, you need to be clear and share as way opens what you are most comfortable with. You, on the other hand, should never, ever, expect that it’s okay for you to interject your own wishes or expectations of physical touch in any way upon a client, student or underage camper, etc.

This is why it is so important for you to have done your own inner work in this area beforehand, either as part of specific training, in professional supervision or at the very least with your supervisor in whatever program that you are involved with. Surprisingly, it may be difficult to get your superiors to understand and be willing to shell out money for such training or supervision in this area. The “risk assessment” people whose job it is to look for ways to minimize risk in your organization (which really is more about reducing their legal liability than anything else), are by and large not focused in this area at all. But you should be.

What does all this mean?

Be aware of the presence of students, program attendees and clients who are prone to behave, or act out in some way sexually, or who appear to have issues around boundaries in general. Develop with co-workers a strategy for dealing with this that includes education and re-framing for the client and an approved protocol for staff to follow.

If you have never had training in this area, try to arrange for it. (These days, many insurance carriers who underwrite liability policies offer such training for free. But somebody needs to ask for it.

If you interact closely with children and teens, then avoiding any and all touch is nearly impossible, depending on the kind of work that you do. Being obsessed about it, to the point where it’s obvious that you are trying not to be touched, or go to great lengths to never, ever, touch others, is also unnatural and can send a negative and damaging message to a child. Knowing this is very important. If you’re the kind of adult who gets wigged out by physical closeness, (let alone being touched) between yourself and young people, you may be in the wrong profession, or volunteering with the wrong kind of non-profit program. Conversely, if you think that you have a right to touch any child because you’re the adult and they are not, you should not be working with children, either. (And these people know who they are.)

Unintentional or accidental touch can and will happen from time to time when you’re working with children and teens. When this happens, the teachable moment has arrived by saying, “excuse me,” or, “I’m sorry.” Plain and simple. They’ll think that it’s no big deal but you’ll be modeling good boundaries and honoring their person-hood in the process.

Some children who are challenged with behavioral or cognitive issues and delays may exhibit peculiar habits around touch in general. They may demonstrate a need to touch excessively, or appear fearful of touch from anyone altogether. Sometimes, how these children present will make you feel uncomfortable as well. It may be helpful to speak with parents about this and perhaps a therapist who is working with the child as either or both may have a preferred plan in place on how to manage this situation. The key here is meeting the child’s needs, not yours. I’ve seen attending adults try too hard to so-call “normalize” a group member or student within a given setting that sadly, didn’t end very well.

The takeaway here is this: The first task of understanding boundaries, in this case physical boundaries, is to understand where you are in your own head and heart. Get training whenever possible and if none seems available, ask your boss or program leader for it. Talk with your colleagues and/or co-workers about existing policies regarding physical boundaries between adults and young people within your given setting. When we as adults have done our own inner work regarding what constitutes appropriate touch and what is not appropriate touch, the comfort level of everyone involved improves, our work feels easier and the goals of the program are achieved.

Resources to Consider:

National Children’s Advocacy Center. A great place for learning more about child safety and to receive training, etc.

Touch in Healthy Relationships, by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director.

Text and image by Kevin Lee