Setting Professional Boundaries With Clients – Why, How, and When

Boundaries are something that are essential to every day life but they are especially important when working with our clients. Oftentimes clients don’t understand the therapeutic relationship so we have to make sure we are setting appropriate boundaries with them to help guide them through it. It also can help them learn what to expect from us (aka what we’re willing to give and what we are not willing to give in the newly established relationship). We’re going to discuss why setting professional boundaries with clients is important, how to set boundaries, and when to do so.

Why?

Boundaries are important for SO many reasons! Here are a few

Establishing a Therapeutic Relationship 

When you first start working with a client, they may have never had a therapist before. When a client has never been to therapy, they don’t know what to expect. By setting appropriate, professional boundaries with clients, we help guide them through the therapeutic process. Sometimes clients expect us to be their friends but that’s not our role in their lives – we can be friendly, but not a friend. Setting boundaries with clients will help avoid uncomfortable situations later in therapy (like them trying to be friends with you or pursuing a sexual relationship)

Modeling 

Another reason setting boundaries is important is because it can help to model healthy relationship skills for your clients. Sometimes they have never seen someone set boundaries or keep their boundaries consistent. By setting boundaries and sticking with them, we can model for them a great example that they can use in their own lives.

Enforcing Rules

Boundaries are also useful when it comes to enforcing rules. You may work for an agency where there are certain rules that clients must follow in order to be at the facility or a client in the program. When we set these boundaries up front with clients and enforce them, clients are more likely to continue to follow the rules of the program for a successful journey through therapy.

Consistency and Trust

Some clients have never really had consistency in their life. As therapists, it is our job to help create a safe place for them which includes having a place where they know what to expect. Once boundaries are established and enforced, it becomes easier to gain our client’s trust because we are showing them that we are consistent and true to our word.

Ethical Issues

Boundaries are also extremely important to make sure that we are following the code of ethics and avoiding any sort of ethical concerns. For example, if a client is trying to push boundaries and have an intimate relationship with their therapist, it is extremely important to explain your boundaries and enforce them. This can also be true with other boundaries, like providing services to friends, charging for therapy, and other ethical issues. When you set boundaries it is much easier to avoid ethical dilemmas.

How?

Setting boundaries sounds easy but can be hard, especially for new therapists in the field. Oftentimes therapists are worried that it will somehow effect their relationship with their client in a negative way. However, it actually does the opposite. As I discussed above, clients having a clear idea of what to expect can be beneficial for them.

Setting boundaries at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship is helpful because then there is no room for the client to have to guess. Going over rules in group therapy (and even letting the clients establish the rules within reason can help with buy-in to these boundaries!) at the beginning of the group is a great idea. Same with individual therapy. You can explain your role in their life and what their time with you will be like. You should be having these conversations throughout therapy, not just at the beginning, but it’s especially important at that time. This way, a client can’t say “well I didn’t know!”

So HOW do we set professional boundaries?

Sometimes, boundary setting is as simple as saying “okay, let’s talk about group rules” or “here’s what you can expect from me.” You don’t have to be a robot and be like “NOW WE ARE BOUNDARY SETTING.” It can be part of the natural conversation.

Another way to set boundaries is when you realize a client is trying to push a boundary that has been set. You can gently (or not so gently- depending on your relationship with the client) remind them of what expectations have been set in place and that you expect them to follow these expectations. For example, a client may be on their phone during group when one of the rules is no cell phones during therapy. You can remind the client about the rules that were established and that they shouldn’t be on their phone. If they don’t follow the boundaries, stick with the natural consequences that are set up. For this instance, they may be asked to leave the group until they are done with their phone.

When?

Boundaries should be set ALL THE TIME! Remember, sometimes clients have never had relationships where boundaries were set and enforced. This might be their first time ever experiencing boundaries. Some clients will also push your limits to see how far they can go. Don’t let them get the best of you! Stick to your boundaries and make sure you communicate with the client what is going on. It can be a great lesson for them and you’re modeling appropriate behavior at the same time.

Boundaries – Not So Scary

Boundaries don’t have to be scary. They are so important to set with clients up front and continously throughout treatment. As I said above, you can set them by incorporating them into normal conversations- don’t make it weird!

Sometimes we are the first healthy relationship a client has ever had. Other times they just don’t quite understand what the therapeutic relationship is or what it should look like. We want to model our behavior in ways that the client can see and incorporate into their every day lives. Establishing boundaries with clients can be helpful in later session too. We can bring up how we set certain boundaries with them as an example of how they can set boundaries with someone else in their life.

 

What are some ways you practice boundary setting with your clients? Have any questions or comments? Leave them below!

2 thoughts on “Setting Professional Boundaries With Clients – Why, How, and When

  1. Hi there,

    Some really good nuggets of information here, it’s often something we’re ignorant of or maybe afraid to tackle. If a client/colleague crosses a boundary or says something inappropriate, I’ll often ignore it or not respond (for instance if they’re making a joke, I won’t laugh at it). It can be hard to approach awkward/difficult situations though, so setting them at the start is a great tip.

    1. I’m glad you found this article useful! Good luck setting boundaries. I hope it leads you to many healthy relationships!

      Jess

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