Universal Vulnerabilities

By Christopher Thurber

In Part I of this series on maintaining professional boundaries with young people, I introduced the concept of a fiduciary, suggested the guideline of “Doubt = Don’t,” and outlined practical and effective ways in which directors could train staff to act responsibly. These fundamental ideas and practices serve as the basis for decent behavior.

In Part II, I’ll expose the vulnerabilities that tempt adults to cross boundaries in the first place. The allure of becoming more popular in youngsters’ eyes may tempt us all, but there are deeper psychological forces at work as well.

Becoming mindful of these potent vulnerabilities not only inoculates us against corrosive boundary crossings, but also puts us in touch with our own humanity.

Nipping The Proverbial Bud
Consider Robin, an athletic and good-looking counselor at Camp Uprite, who tells a camper, “Every leader has favorites, and you’re mine.” No crime has been committed here. No reporting law has been triggered. And no child has been abused.

But Robin has nevertheless crossed a boundary. This type of low-level boundary crossing is insidious because it begins to corrode the professional relationship between Robin, this camper, and the other campers who hear this comment or witness Robin’s favoritism. This action can also pave the way to a more serious boundary violation.

This type of boundary crossing happens with greater frequency than most directors would like to know. However, proper training, grounded in an understanding of what tempts youth leaders to cross boundaries, can dramatically lower their frequency and seriousness. When staff members are mindful about what tempts them, the entire camp is safer.

The Vulnerability Landscape
here are four factors that make people more likely to cross boundaries: emotional, relational, personal, and contextual. Remember, boundaries protect the relationship space that exists between an adult leader and a young person by controlling the power differential and allowing for a safe connection.

Emotional Factors
Normative affection morphs into romance. For some youth leaders, the attraction they feel toward campers goes beyond avuncular affection and becomes amorous. All staff should enjoy their interactions with youngsters, including smiles, laughter, and friendship. Between adults, such an evolution from friendship to romance can be quite natural. Between an adult and a young person, this evolution is unprofessional and represents a serious relationship contaminant.

Rescue fantasies come to life. When adults sympathize with difficult or tragic life circumstances of one of their campers, they may commit to improving those circumstances. All staff members should be invested in the positive development of the young people they serve. However, it is not the job of a staff member to liberate youngsters from their challenging lives. When staff members see themselves as saviors, they are at great risk for violating professional boundaries.

Substance use alters emotions and lowers inhibitions. The good judgment of the best camp staff member disappears when he or she becomes intoxicated. Simply put, boundary crossings are more likely to occur when staff members are uninhibited by alcohol, marijuana, or some other substance. It is never professional to be under the influence on camp property.

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.

Youthful inexperience impairs decision-making skills. Yes, it’s true that the underdeveloped frontal lobes of men and women in their late teens and early twenties put them at a biological disadvantage. They are at greater risk for crossing boundaries because, compared to older adults, they have less impulse control, poorer hypothetical thinking, less sophisticated reasoning and—through no fault of their own—less experience on the planet. Together, these factors make young adults statistically more likely to cross boundaries than older adults.

Contextual Factors
A cabin, lodge, car, or wilderness setting feels private. The environmental context of an enclosed or remote setting is part of what makes camp, camp. For any staff members who feel that these buildings or woods afford privacy, there is a risk of boundary crossings. Anyone who has worked at a camp or independent school can describe that, in such cloistered settings—ones where many people live together in close quarters—there are, ultimately, no secrets.

The Internet environment (e.g., chat rooms, text messaging) with perceived anonymity lowers inhibitions and may allow for otherwise forbidden or inappropriate behaviors. As we have seen with politicians and celebrities, the Internet makes it easy to cross boundaries. Indeed, search engines and banner ads invite us to cross boundaries. People are curious, and the Internet is the ultimate satisfier of that curiosity. Moreover, the Internet can make us seem as if we are in a private space, which lowers the inhibitions we may feel in public spaces. In fact, there is no more public space than the Internet. For these reasons, all staff members need education about appropriate online behavior. Remember, if it’s digital, it’s duplicable.

Given all of these temptations and risk factors for boundary crossings, you might feel as if employing young staff members to care for other people’s children is the consummate precarious profession. And if it were not for the opportunity to provide top-drawer training to these young adults, you would be right.

Fortunately, well-educated employees rarely commit egregious boundary violations. The catch is, all staff members are at risk, so any director who skimps on staff training, even a little, is inviting the 14 temptations noted above to take hold.

Part I of this series focused on key prevention practices. Reviewing those now might be helpful because you’ll see them in a different light. Then add these other essential preventive measures to your training repertoire:

(1) Emphasize to staff members that it is always their responsibility—not a youngster’s—to observe and enforce boundaries, regardless of the context and emotions involved.

(2) Remind personnel that the Internet is public space. How they behave in that space, like all other public behavior, should set a sterling example for young people to follow.

(3) Explain to staff members how stress and negative emotion can cloud judgment. Educate them about the healthiest ways to manage the challenges of their job, including whom to talk with when they are feeling overwhelmed or strung out.

(4) Ensure that staff members understand how normal it is for their contact with young people to stir up all types of positive emotions, some of which might be confusing. It takes an experienced director to help staff members keep their enthusiasm and affection within strict professional parameters.

In Part III of this series, I’ll explain the ways in which staff members can support one another in observing professional boundaries, and, in so doing, maintain the highest standards of leadership. Because we all share the vulnerabilities outlined in this article, we also share a responsibility to keep one another in check.

Part of our fiduciary responsibility—part of keeping young people’s best interests as our top priority—is giving our adult peers quality feedback on their job. Equally important is being receptive to our peers’ feedback on our own professional conduct.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy, the waterfront director at Camp Belknap, and the co-founder of the leading web-based educational resource for youth leaders, ExpertOnlineTraining.com .