Establishing and maintaining professional boundaries is an ongoing and important process for every early interventionist. Because interventionists work so closely with families, the boundaries between the parent-professional partnership and friendship can become blurred. This can happen for both people in the partnership, but it is ultimately the professional’s responsibility to maintain the boundary.
Consider this real situation and think about how you would handle it:
Sandy has been collaborating with Elliot’s mother, Arlene, for about 8 months during weekly intervention visits. Initially, Elliot came home after a long hospital stay and was medically fragile, requiring in home nursing care and many visits to doctors. Sandy became a regular, steady presence in the home and provided emotional as well as intervention support to Arlene. As their relationship progressed, Sandy found that Arlene was sharing more and more personal information, regularly asking for Arlene’s advice on how to handle her relationship with Elliot’s father. When Sandy suggested that she was not the person to ask and encouraged Arlene to talk to her friends about that, Arlene replied that Sandy was really the only person she saw other than Elliot’s nurses. Her family lived in another state and she hadn’t been able to make many friends since moving to the town. Sandy thinks back on their conversations over the past 8 months and realizes that she may have shared too much of her own personal information in an effort to bond with Arlene, which has likely contributed to Arlene feeling like Sandy is a close friend. Now that she is in this situation, she is not sure how to re-establish a professional relationship.
What should Sandy do?
Strategies for Walking the Boundary
This situation is not at all uncommon in early intervention. Service providers often meet families at emotionally charged times and continue to support them over an average of 18 months or longer. Working together, week after week, it’s natural that close relationships will develop. It’s also likely that interventionists will provide different kinds of support, depending on the needs of the family. Providing informational and emotional support is a very real part of this work and can be done in a professional manner. Here are a few strategies that Sandy might use or might have used in the past to maintain professional boundaries while supporting Arlene and Elliot:
Be mindful of how much and what type of personal information is shared – Consider, before sharing personal information and experiences, how it will benefit or possibly harm the relationship with the family. Be careful with sharing information about your own family. Visits should not be a time for you to vent about what’s happening in your life.
Be vigilant about your role as a support and partner – Part of building rapport and trust with families is developing a friendly relationship around intervention. Being friendly is not the same as being friends, though. In most programs, developing friendships with parents is discouraged because of the risk that once that professional boundary is crossed, it can compromise the ability of the interventionist to remain objective. It can also compromise the parent’s empowerment and ability to ask for changes to the IFSP, such as a change in provider if the child’s needs aren’t being appropriately addressed. Remember, you will be most effective if you remember your role in the parent-provider partnership.
Gently redirect requests for personal information or advice – Sometimes parents ask for information or advice just as part of casual conversation, which is a natural thing to do when you see someone as often as they see intervention providers. If asked for information that crosses the boundary, try to redirect the conversation back to the intervention activity. It’s also okay to be more direct and say that you can’t disclose certain information (like you can’t give out your home phone number, for instance).
Offer to link families so they can support each other – Many programs have parent groups or ways to link parents with similar interests or whose children have similar needs so that they can learn from and support one another. When a parent is lacking in social support, maybe you or the service coordinator can help him or her get connected with others who can fill that need.
Intervention providers can come to care deeply about the children and families they support. Likewise, providers can become “part of the family.” If, like Sandy, you find that professional boundaries have been crossed, the first thing to do is consider your role and how you can reset those boundaries. If your boundaries are becoming difficult to maintain, talk to your supervisor.
What other strategies do you use to establish and maintain professional boundaries? What are some do’s and don’ts for maintaining professional boundaries?
What advice would you have for Sandy?