Setting boundaries as a therapist is one of the most important ways to maintain healthy relationships with clients and how therapist’s can take care of their own mental health.
Boundaries with clients define the parameters of the therapeutic relationship, which can help clients feel more secure and stable in the sessions. Setting boundaries also prevents the client and therapist from forming inappropriate relationships that could be detrimental on many levels. Clients rely and must depend on their therapist to be a safe, neutral, and supportive figure. If the relationship extends beyond the therapy session, clients lose that safety and security.
Therapist-client boundaries are critical for therapist’s own sake, too. For example, if a therapist is constantly available to their clients, they never get a true separation from their professional role and likelihood of burnout is much greater. Unhealthy boundaries and inappropriate relationships can definitely affect the therapist’s professional reputation and can compromise their professional license and ability to further provide counseling.
The specific boundaries that are set with clients can depend on a number of factors, including the work setting as well as the client population and the specific therapeutic approach being used. No matter the dynamics, creating boundaries is a necessary and required component of the therapeutic relationship.
Here Are Five Tips on How to Set Boundaries with Clients
1. Set rules for scheduling, space, and fees.
Having very specific, concrete rules for sessions and services is a great way to begin establishing boundaries with clients. Therapists should always think about what rules will be most beneficial and communicate these guidelines clearly with clients, prior to beginning therapy.
Clients should understand the rules regarding what/if any payments are due and what forms of payments are acceptable.
Most therapists have rules about the lengths of their sessions. If you offer 55-minute sessions so that you have a 5-minute break between clients, don’t let your sessions run over. Remind the client 5 to 10 minutes prior to end of session that the session will be ending shortly and begin to wrap up needed topics. If client’s need more time, they can make a future appointment. Being conscious of time and sticking to the time frame can feel like an awkward/uncaring rule but it actually models respectful behavior and further defines the boundaries of the relationship.
For group or family sessions, setting rules between the clients is critical. For example, one rule might require that no one enter the room after a group session has begun. Boundaries aren’t just important between the therapist and the client, but they’re also essential for maintaining healthy relationships between two clients.
2. Be careful with self-disclosure.
Not revealing too much personal information about yourself is an obvious rule for therapists, but it’s not always easy to navigate this topic in practice. Most therapists agree that it’s not always practical to never reveal anything about yourself during a therapy session. The key to maintaining this boundary is to evaluate whether revealing information is for the benefit of the client or for the benefit of the therapist.
Sometimes, therapist self-disclosure can help to strengthen the therapeutic bond. When a client feels like they know their therapist more closely, they may feel more comfortable opening up to them. Oversharing with clients can be a severe boundary violation. If the client starts to feel their therapist is more like their friend than their therapist, the therapist is likely sharing too much.
3. Limit physical touch.
Often times, clients feel a sense of gratitude toward their therapists, and they may want to express this with a hug. While hugging can be a great source of comfort between friends or family members, this is generally not an appropriate interaction between therapists and clients. Try to limit physical contact with clients as much as possible. We have realized that telehealth is very helpful with this! Fortunately, telehealth sessions essentially make physical touch or related boundary violations a non-issue
4. In most cases, avoid receiving gifts.
Some clients like to show appreciation through gift-giving, so it’s very important to understand and stick to clear boundaries on this topic. The general guideline is to identify the purpose behind the gift and the possible therapeutic benefits of the gift. Therapist’s should not accept gifts from clients if they appear to be giving them because they feel indebted. Your role in the relationship is to provide a professional service and be their therapist, and they shouldn’t feel like they have to offer anything beyond their monetary payment.
It’s worthwhile for therapist’s to provide education to client’s regarding why gifts aren’t appropriate. Receiving a gift, especially that has monetary value, can be an infraction with Licensing boards and can actually jeopardize a therapist’s license. Especially is today’s current culture, a simple and kind gesture can be turned and twisted into something inappropriate and/or very damaging for the therapist. The cleanest course of action is to not give or accept gifts, especially if there is any monetary value involved.
5. Set rules around technology.
Since technology has become more advanced and more mainstream, it’s very important to have clear boundaries with clients regarding use of cell phones, ipads, video chat, texting, emails etc. Covid-19 brought a massive surge in counseling sessions being provided via some audio/video real-time device. Many clients have adapted very well to this new platform and telehealth has brought many wonderful advantages. Boundaries still must be drawn with respect to technology.
Therapist’s should set boundaries around text messages outside of sessions. Generally, therapist’s are not on-call, nor are they a hotline and they should not try to be ever present for each client. Clinical content should not be provided or processed via texts. Client’s may need education regarding how to limit self-disclosure in texts and how to keep the clinical content safeguarded in the actual counseling session.
Therapist-client relationship boundaries are critical for the success of the therapeutic relationship. It’s the therapist’s responsibility a to establish and maintain boundaries with clients for everybody’s well-being and mental health. This often requires some awkward and difficult conversations with clients about boundaries and the rationale behind them, but it’s better to be upfront about the topics than to risk harming the therapeutic relationship.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy for older adults with depression, anxiety, and many other mental health concerns. Our licensed counselors specialize in therapy for seniors and the unique psychological and emotional challenges they face. Reach out to us today to learn more about our services.