Universal Vulnerabilities

In Part I of this series on maintaining professional boundaries with young people, I introduced the concept of a fiduciary, suggested the guideline of “Doubt = Don’t,” and outlined practical and effective ways in which directors could train staff to act responsibly. These fundamental ideas and practices serve as the basis for decent behavior.

All of us can be tempted to cross intimacy boundaries when working with children. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / photography33

In Part II, I’ll expose the vulnerabilities that tempt adults to cross boundaries in the first place. The allure of becoming more popular in youngsters’ eyes may tempt us all, but there are deeper psychological forces at work as well.

Becoming mindful of these potent vulnerabilities not only inoculates us against corrosive boundary crossings, but also puts us in touch with our own humanity.

Nipping The Proverbial Bud

Consider Robin, an athletic and good-looking counselor at Camp Uprite, who tells a camper, “Every leader has favorites, and you’re mine.” No crime has been committed here. No reporting law has been triggered. And no child has been abused.

But Robin has nevertheless crossed a boundary. This type of low-level boundary crossing is insidious because it begins to corrode the professional relationship between Robin, this camper, and the other campers who hear this comment or witness Robin’s favoritism. This action can also pave the way to a more serious boundary violation.

This type of boundary crossing happens with greater frequency than most directors would like to know. However, proper training, grounded in an understanding of what tempts youth leaders to cross boundaries, can dramatically lower their frequency and seriousness. When staff members are mindful about what tempts them, the entire camp is safer.

The Vulnerability Landscape

There are four factors that make people more likely to cross boundaries: emotional, relational, personal, and contextual. Remember, boundaries protect the relationship space that exists between an adult leader and a young person by controlling the power differential and allowing for a safe connection.

Emotional Factors

Normative affection morphs into romance. For some youth leaders, the attraction they feel toward campers goes beyond avuncular affection and becomes amorous. All staff should enjoy their interactions with youngsters, including smiles, laughter, and friendship. Between adults, such an evolution from friendship to romance can be quite natural. Between an adult and a young person, this evolution is unprofessional and represents a serious relationship contaminant.

Rescue fantasies come to life. When adults sympathize with difficult or tragic life circumstances of one of their campers, they may commit to improving those circumstances. All staff members should be invested in the positive development of the young people they serve. However, it is not the job of a staff member to liberate youngsters from their challenging lives. When staff members see themselves as saviors, they are at great risk for violating professional boundaries.

Substance use alters emotions and lowers inhibitions. The good judgment of the best camp staff member disappears when he or she becomes intoxicated. Simply put, boundary crossings are more likely to occur when staff members are uninhibited by alcohol, marijuana, or some other substance. It is never professional to be under the influence on camp property.

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  1. Am I Oversharing?
  2. Watch Out For One Another
  3. For Juniors’ Sake
  4. Kids’ Big Fears, Part II
  5. Continuous Professional Development
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