Boundary violations are one of the most common reasons why complaints are made about practitioners and one of the most potentially damaging experiences for clients.
Establishing and maintaining clear professional boundaries is a key principle of ethical practice as a psychologist. The responsibility for maintaining boundaries rests with the psychologist not the client. To effectively manage professional boundaries as a psychologist requires this understanding in the first instance. Then the psychologist requires vigilance and an awareness of where there may be risk of a boundary violation with a client.
How are professional boundaries established?
Psychologists establish clear professional boundaries with clients at the outset of the psychological service by:
- clearly communicating the nature of the services to be provided;
- outlining their role;
- explaining the limits of confidentiality-
- explaining how information will be used and stored; and
- explaining the financial arrangements.
This process provides the framework for an effective professional relationship, enabling informed consent and fostering a sense of trust and safety for the client.
Psychologists should actively monitor and maintain professional boundaries throughout the provision of their services. When managing professional boundaries, psychologists should consider the following questions to help clarify whether they are acting in the best interests of their client:
- Am I overstepping my limits of competence?
- Is there a possibility of a conflict of interest developing?
- Am I self-disclosing more than usual?
- Am I finding it difficult to stay in my professional role?
- Am I providing a different level or quality of professional service than is indicated for the client’s situation?
- Are any of my current personal difficulties adversely influencing my professional objectivity?
- Am I avoiding discussing the client in supervision?
Risk factors for boundary violations
Boundary violations usually start with boundary blurring and from there it can be a slippery slope to boundary violations. Clients may ask personal information about you, ask you to join their social media group, suggest meeting for a coffee, or seek information about common interests. Psychologists should be aware of attempts to blur boundaries and be prepared to respond in a consistent way to ensure professional boundaries are maintained. Some clients will test, challenge or violate boundaries during the provision of a psychological service; however, it is the psychologist’s responsibility to set and maintain those boundaries throughout treatment. Psychologists with well-established boundaries and role clarity are better able to provide a competent psychological service in their client’s best interest. Some high-risk areas where psychologists should be particularly vigilant to the possibility of blurring or violation of boundaries risk factors are:
Where a psychological service is provided can increase the risk, for example, working from a home office, working in a small community where multiple relationships are more likely to occur, not being able to provide privacy and confidentiality.
When providing supervision
Being aware of the power differential that exists between the supervisor and supervisee and, also, if there are multiple roles, e.g. if the supervisee is employed by the supervisor.
Financial arrangements/ business or commercial partnerships
Psychologists should be aware of the potential harm that could exist if entering into a financial, business or commercial arrangement with the client which is outside of the professional service agreement.
Family and friends
Where possible, psychologists should avoid providing a professional service to family, friends or persons where they have a pre-existing or ongoing relationship due to lack of objectivity that may impair their judgement.
Psychologists should be aware that any physical contact needs to be a recognised component of an evidence-based professional practice, be culturally appropriate, and importantly acceptable to the client. Clients may also potentially misinterpret any physical contact as a blurring of your professional boundaries.
Sexual activity with a client
The most serious boundary violation is sexual activity with a client. This doesn’t just occur suddenly but is usually the end of the slippery slope starting with blurring of boundaries. Psychologists should be aware that they are prohibited from engaging in sexual activity with current clients and former clients or anybody who is closely related to one of their clients within a two-year period after the professional relationship has ended. This boundary violation could lead to an NCAT Tribunal hearing and could result in suspension or removal of your registration.
It is important that if you are aware that you have an issue with professional boundary blurring or boundary violations that you seek advice from a senior psychologist or your supervisor. As stated above, it is the psychologist’s responsibility to establish clear professional boundaries and maintain them during the provision of the professional service.
Further information can be found in the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics and Ethical Guidelines, which have been adopted by the Psychology Board of Australia. The following ethical guidelines are relevant:
- Ethical guidelines for psychological services involving multiple clients.
- Ethical guidelines for managing professional boundaries and multiple relationships.
- Ethical guidelines on the prohibition of sexual activity with clients.
- Ethical guidelines relating to procedures/assessments that involve psychologist-client physical contact.
- Ethical guidelines for psychological practice in rural and remote settings
- Ethical guidelines on supervision.
- Ethical guidelines for psychological practice with women and girls.
- Ethical guidelines for psychological practice with men and boys.