Universal Vulnerabilities

Stress—from work, family, relationships—hijacks judgment. Stress shuts down our frontal lobes, at least in part. The area of the brain directly behind our forehead is essential for hypothetical thinking; essential for considering the consequences of our actions. The frontal lobes are also exquisitely sensitive to stress. The more anxious we are, the more the frontal lobes are neurochemically bypassed. Simply put, staff members who feel overwhelmed—by the demands of their jobs or other circumstances—may develop a biological blind spot for professional boundaries.

Relational Factors

The relationship with a special child feels unique. As soon as adults conceptualize the relationship with a favorite child as unique, two boundaries have been crossed. First, the adult has made the mistake of allowing having favorites evolve into playing favorites. Second, the adult has begun making a new set of rules that apply only to a particular child. Typically, this takes the form of permissiveness (rule-bending). Because all children are special in their own way, “specialness” should never undermine sound judgment.

The invitation to violate boundaries is initiated by a child. In most cases, people feel flattered when someone initiates social contact. Humans are social animals, and our brains reward us with a squirt of dopamine (one of the neurotransmitters that influences mood) when others shower us with praise or affection. For some staff members, the fact that a camper has suggested a boundary crossing, such as spending special time alone together, is tempting because it feels good to have been asked. However, it is always the adult’s job—the adult’s fiduciary responsibility—to set an appropriate boundary.

A lack of other fulfilling relationships causes a vacuum. Staff members who are lonely may be more motivated to form connections with young people. Some of those connections may be wholesome; others may start to cross boundaries. Therefore, staff members must always be vigilant that a dearth of peer connections—both friendly and romantic—does not cloud their judgment about what constitutes appropriate behavior with youngsters.

There is a longing to be liked by youngsters. As noted above, all staff members want to be liked and admired by the young people with whom they work. However, a quest for popularity is both poor leadership and a risk factor for boundary crossings. Young people won’t say it, but any staff member who tries too hard to be cool actually becomes less admired. Healthy connections should primarily be fueled by a longing to lead, not a longing to be liked.

Personal Factors

The staff member personally identifies with the young person’s life circumstances and experiences. Each of us has encountered adversity in our lives, be it parental divorce, family members’ mental-health problems, poverty, death of a loved one, or even abusive or neglectful treatment. Meeting a young person whose life circumstances are similarly challenging may awaken genuine empathy in some staff members. However, this identification with parallel biographies should motivate supportive, appropriate, and equitable treatment rather than any type of special treatment.

There is a desire to be younger or cooler. Age has its privileges … and also its frustrations, such as weight gain, hair loss, joint pain, and all types of concerns that make adults feel, well, older and less hip. And while spending time with young people infuses staff members with exuberance, a strong desire to become more like the young people they serve is a risk factor for crossing boundaries. When this desire leads to regression (i.e., child-like behavior), the results can be considered “bad” for a child, but can be patently “inappropriate” for an adult. Giving “wedgies” and “purple nurples” are classic examples.

Past personal trauma justifies exceptions to “society’s rules” or “regular boundaries.” Some staff members consider that, because they have experienced a traumatic event in their childhood, they have a free pass to behave differently from other employees. While they recognize the widely accepted boundaries that other staff members observe, they may consider themselves exempt from those rules because someone else previously broke rules with them. If staff members convince themselves that society owes them and therefore excuses them, the risk for boundary violations increases.

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