Understanding and maintaining professional boundaries in social care work – An interview with Frank Cooper

Frank Cooper is a freelance trainer specialising in professional boundaries in social care, and has over 16 years’ experience as a social care professional. He previously also taught in the fields of volunteer training and drugs awareness, and has developed accredited courses in his chosen fields of specialty.

In this interview, he discusses his new guide, Professional Boundaries in Social Work and Social Care; explains why professional boundaries exist and why they can sometimes be difficult to maintain; and shares his personal experience of what can happen when those seemingly clear lines are crossed.


Tell us a bit about yourself and how you come to write this book.

I have worked doing a variety of social care roles since I was 18, starting with youth work and then moving on to drugs work with young people and then drugs/addiction work with adults. Along the way I have also been a care assistant with stroke victims, worked in children’s homes and with the homeless. I have always delivered training, firstly for my employers and then freelance. As time went on I came to realise the importance of boundaries and noticed the lack of training available. Having delivered the training for a while, the book seemed like the natural next phase.

Why are professional boundaries important in social work and social care?

Professional boundaries are vital in social care work because we are working on a deep level with vulnerable people. This means that we have a responsibility to them to do things to the best of our ability and to ensure that our help and support does not damage or disenfranchise them. Working with difficult issues can also be very stressful and draining work, and professional boundaries help us to manage ourselves and our emotions.

How do they differ to professional boundaries in any other sector?

Whilst the basic boundaries within this book are similar to many other sectors, the application, understanding and maintenance of the boundaries is more complex. The relationship that social care workers hold with their clients, the amount of time they spend with their clients, and the nature of the subjects they deal with all complicate things. The most complex area of professional boundaries is managing the relationship between client and worker, and social care workers often have the most complex relationships with their clients.

Who have you written this book for?

This book is aimed primarily at students in the social work/social care sector or those working in the sector who have not received any formal training on boundaries. However, given the lack of detailed training in the sector generally, it is suitable for people at all stages of their career. Boundaries is an area that is always worth reflecting on in order to improve your practice, and going over the materials in the book should provide food for thought for anyone involved in social work or social care.

You are an experienced trainer in this area. What do you tend to find trainees struggle with the most in relation to professional boundaries and confidentiality?

Most of the training work that I have done is with professionals who have already been trained and are experienced. In terms of confidentiality, the area that they seem to find difficult is managing the complex boundaries when working jointly with other social care professionals supporting a single client. Once you are working with other professionals you feel part of the same team and it can be difficult to withhold information. The other area that people often find difficult is dealing with concerned family members.

Can you give some examples of the negative consequences of failing to maintain boundaries?

At its most extreme, failing to maintain boundaries can lead to issues of serious neglect and abuse with clients, either through the failure to offer necessary support or by the relationship slipping into deeply inappropriate areas.

A more common example would be allowing a client to feel that they have a ‘special’ relationship which could lead to them becoming overly dependent on you as a worker. If you then move jobs or have to refer them on, any positive work that you have done could fall apart as a result of the difficulty they have in separating from you.

As a worker it is very easy to slip over the line without noticing that you have done so, particularly if the client you are working with brings up strong feelings or memories for you. Being self-aware and keeping a check on yourself is essential. The book contains signs to watch out for in both worker and client behaviour, and also some insights into issues such as co-dependency that can be both a cause and effect of boundary issues.

Have you ever experienced conflicts relating to your own professional role?

I have had many situations involving boundary crossings and issues, I think that anyone working in the social care field will have had many similar experiences.

One of the most difficult experiences I had was working in a children’s home. I was a new, locum worker. One of the older boys started to regularly punch me in the arm and despite my best efforts to deal with the situation I couldn’t control him. I went to a senior member of staff and asked for support in dealing with the situation. I was advised to give the boy ‘a little dig in the ribs’ and that would sort the situation out. In the end I stopped working at the unit and made a complaint about the member of staff.

I have also had a situation where a teenage female client I was working with, repeatedly turned up at the project late at night whilst I was working – threatening to kill herself (or me) when I didn’t let her in – after I had refused her request to be her father. This situation was much more complex to resolve and involved working closely with my manager and other members of staff to support her.

One really useful feature of the book is a self-assessment questionnaire for the reader to fill in. Tell us how it was devised and what kind of feedback you have had on it to date.

What I wanted was a format to engage people in the subject. I have always enjoyed filling in those questionnaires and it is a format that people are familiar with. It has been incredibly popular and I get feedback all the time on it. I use a version of it in all my training sessions and a version has been published in Community Care Magazine. Most recently some social workers in Florida have requested to use it at a conference and I have had many lecturers and managers request to use it in their work.

Take a Professional Boundaries Quiz.

Finally, the book is full of very practical and hands-on advice. Can you give us a few examples of the kind of tips that feature in the book to take away?

The aim of the book is to be practical and hands on reference guide. It includes signs that you or a client are crossing boundaries and that the relationship may be heading in an inappropriate direction. Methods to help challenge and manage client’s behaviour and also action points to deal with and manage crossed boundaries. There are tips about assertive communication, which is essential to enforcing boundaries successfully; a list so high risk situations; and guidance on how to react to boundary crossings and high-risk situations. There is a whole chapter on beginning and ending relationships which gives very simple step-by-step guidance on how to successfully start and finish a relationship in a “boundaried” way.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

4 Thoughts

  1. Fantastically helpful in my studies right at a point where I had a complete block! A cup of tea and a good read of this interview and I’m refreshed and unblocked. I have quoted Mr Frank Cooper in my answers but where can this full guide be purchased from?

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