How I Learned the Importance of Boundaries in Teaching & Therapy with Children

As a teacher, my interactions with parents and children often included boundary crossings. Whether it was the giving or receiving of small gifts, hugging or touching, or bumping into students and their parents at a public place, it was sometimes difficult to determine what constituted a concrete boundary crossing and when it could have potentially been harmful. Working with middle to upper class families and children, who come fourth with ‘normal’ day-to-day challenges was one thing.

However, the biggest challenge for me came at a time when I was still an undergraduate student, volunteering at a child welfare. The supervisor at the organisation must have overestimated my knowledge and experience when she had me conduct play therapy with an eight-year -old boy who had been removed from his family due to a variety of factors (including sexual abuse). My goal was to use several properties of play with the aim of allowing him a sense of safety and distance to work through his trauma (Ater, 2001). I felt totally thrown in the deep end in a lot of respects – especially the day he asked if I could let him keep one of the toys brought from home – a big yellow camel he loved playing with in the sandpit. It was one of the only toys and activities I really saw him enjoy.

He showed anger punching teddy bears, he would undress the Barbie doll, and he would scribble so hard he sometimes went right through paper when he coloured in -but with this bright yellow camel, he seemed to go off into an imaginary world; a happy place far away in the desert; somewhere no one would touch him. I was limited to seeing that sand play with the camel seemed to be especially therapeutic for him. I did not understand the depth of the delicacies of our relationship at that point in my life. I saw no harm in giving him the camel – the one toy that seemed to make him calm and happy; as a child should be. I let myself feel sympathy for his condition – a little boy without a home; without toys of his own.

I found myself getting into trouble with my supervisor during my next visit, where she informed me that not only was the boy using the toy to hit the other children in the centre, and showing off about the fact that I gave him the toy, but that it made him form a sense of attachment to me – a person who was bound to leave his life – much like the many adults who let him down. It also created confusion in the therapeutic relationship – especially because much of his interactions with adults involved bribery. The boy had also grown to display manipulative behaviours, and had shifted the power dynamic in begging me to give him the toy, and getting his way.

Play can be projection in that child can put emotion onto toys or puppets that can safely act out their feelings (Ater, 2001). This was meant for the sessions. As soon as the toy was taken outside the setting of play therapy, the toy became a tool to act out his aggression onto the other children. I had messed with the delicate equilibrium of the centre – the reason why the boy did not have toys with him to begin with.

I remember that sinking feeling at the pit of my belly; the guilt I felt at having unintentionally caused him harm. I remember thinking: ‘how could an act of good intent turn out to go so horribly wrong? What now? Take the toy away?’ It was one of the most difficult situations I have had to deal with; one that I will never forget. As much as I understood that play could be symbolic in that the child could use toys to represent his experiences (Ater, 2001), I was not as aware of how the act of gifting the toy could be symbolic of other things for the boy – and end up being harmful to him and the process.

I had not really even grappled with the decision about whether or not to participate in the ritual of gift-giving. It was something I did without much deliberation – which was a big mistake! I suppose I felt that rejecting his want would cause harm; not considering how participating in the act had the potential to cause more harm. I suppose I also wanted him to like me – making it a selfish act.

I ended up being guided to make up for the mistake I had made by using it as an opportunity to enforce positive interaction with other children. The fact that he was using the toy to hurt other children became the focus for the reason of why the toy had to be taken away – covering up my mistake and trying to create a positive out of a negative. Teaching him about consequences, I learned a lesson of my own that day –about the consequences of my own actions. Giving the toy was more about me than it was for him, and that went South really quickly. From that day forward, I was more mindful of separating my own bond/ personal relationship from the professional relationship.

I had to be especially careful to avoid boundary violation with my vulnerable client. I realised it was a good idea to mostly avoid touch all together- so that the child was not negatively impacted, and became hyper aware of what could have connoted sexual intent or a deeper attachment than merely a temporary one as a therapist. If touch was being used (such as a high-five), it had to be coupled with clear verbal communication (reinforcement of good behaviour and modelling a healthy form of touch between us) to avoid any ambiguity for the vulnerable child.

The forms of touch I used with my kindergarten-aged students later, as a teacher, were different to that with my vulnerable 8 year old during my time as a volunteer.

Forms of therapeutic touch, coupled with verbal communication, such as ‘hugs; light touch; stroking of the head; rubbing of the back, shoulder, or arm; rocking; or hand-holding’ with children has the ability to enhance ‘expressions of empathy, safety, and comfort’, can enhance trust and a positive connection,  greet or soothe…, help them relax or quiet down, or even to reassure them. (Jungers & Gregoire, 2013 pp 104). However, this can be confusing for a sexually traumatised child. While these forms of touch provided my kindergarten-aged students with ‘an increased feeling of being heard, noticed, and understood’, they may have conveyed a very confusing and contradictory message to someone like that little boy I worked with as a volunteer.

I agree with McNeil-Haber (2004 as cited in Calmed et al, 2013), who proposed that, prior to using therapeutic touch, professionals must have an understanding of the potential benefit of physical touch, the damage that is possible from withholding touch, and the possible negative impact of touch. With time and practice, I learned how to make decisions based on whether or not the actions were exploitive or harmful/ placed the child in an unfair advantage. I became more attuned to ‘the genuine call from [my] professional conscience’ in regard to crossing boundaries (Jungers & Gregoire, 2013 pp. 110)

Gift-giving and receiving with my students did not necessarily pose the same level of danger/ a detriment to our relationship or my work as they did with that particular incident long ago. From time-to-time, students’ gift-giving was warranted in that it took on ‘a ritualistic meaning (as in a “parting gift”’ that marked the end of the school year together). Small, symbolic, inexpensive gifts were considered appropriate (cards; drawings, homemade cookies; chocolate, hand-picked flowers or other ‘treasures’ found in the garden) (Jungers Gregoire, 2013 pp.100). In these cases, gift-giving was ‘a meaningful gesture that, when properly handled, ha[d] the potential to boost the relationship and pave the way for positive outcomes (Brendel et al.,2007; Corey et al., 2011; Hahn, 1998; Spandler, et al., 2000; Zur, 2004, 2007).

Boundaries in this profession often felt vague. I found myself balancing, what Jungers & Gregoire (2013 pp. 98) call ‘structured multiple professional roles’ – often taking on a counselling role with parents, and a nurturing, caretaking role with the kids. I was also sometimes expected to interact with other professionals – such as paediatricians. So long as my role/ action was meaningful and not necessarily detrimental to my students and/ or their parents, or coming from a selfish place within myself – I believed the action to have been justified.

During my time as a volunteer and a teacher, and through my psychological counselling training, I have learned (and continue to learn about) how crucial establishing and upholding appropriate boundaries are in creating a climate of trust and an ongoing partnership in relationships (Jungers, & Gregoire, 2013 pp. 118). I have witnessed a few of the ‘varied ways in which boundaries can become blurred or nonprofessional interactions might unfold’ (Jungers, & Gregoire, 2013 pp. 95). I have grown in awareness of how ‘healthy and professional boundaries are growth-enhancing, while unhealthy or inappropriate boundaries can be destructive and have the potential to harm’ others (Jungers, & Gregoire, 2013 pp. 95)

Counsellors and teachers have a special role of entering into a relationship with people whose ‘welfare is entrusted to [us], and [we] are expected to use the knowledge and skills gained from training to act benevolently’ (Jungers & Gregoire pp. 94). It evident that, ‘through the creation of a safe and trusting environment’, those I will work with will be ‘able to take the first steps towards self-awareness’, healing and ‘personal growth’ (Jungers & Gregoire pp. 120).Boundaries bring fourth a sense of predictability of the roles each play; and confidence through knowing the ‘can’ and ‘cannots’ (Jungers & Gregoire, 2013 pp. 94). Moreover, boundaries provide a sense of physical and psychological safety and affords the assurance that one’s welfare is not taken lightly and their vulnerability will not be misused (Jungers & Gregoire, 2013 pp 95).

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