Social Workers are dedicated to serving marginalized and disadvantaged people from all walks of life, states of need, and meeting them where they are at in their journey, ability, and development. So much of the spirit of social is our attitude and ability to attend to people with diverse needs and experiences, and treat them with compassion and kindness. That being said, social workers are also human beings, and should expect to encounter feelings of annoyance, boredom, and bother with some clients some of the time.
The good news is, most of these feelings and the behaviors that trigger them are actually signals for edges of growth and directions to explore boundaries and areas of managing the frame of the helping relationship.
Boundaries are guidelines or limits created to establish and identify safe and reasonable ways for individuals to act towards one another. Boundaries are essential to setting the frame of treatment and building the consistency and structure necessary to establish a safe space capable of supporting the vulnerability, accountability, and bravery of healing.
Effective boundary setting, management, and maintenance is one of the most crucial features of any kind of social work practice – it establishes the necessary frame and flexibility of the helping relationship, and is a requisite for trust. Nothing challenges boundaries (and invites opportunities to explore, reinforce, or transform them) like clients doing things outside of the usual expectations and order of treatment, especially if it results in the social worker feeling annoyed or unappreciated.
Here are 4 classes of things that commonly come up in clinical social work practice with clients
that can be challenging to the relationship or impact of services.
● Coming late to session
● Asking to cut session short
● Frequent or last-minute cancellations
● Frequent texting, emailing or calling outside of meeting times.
Commitment to the Work
● Phone distractions during session
● Forgetting session details like time, location, frequency, etc.
● Not doing agreed-upon therapeutic homework
● Frequently changing where they sit in the office
● Asking to switch meeting spaces or offices if multiple locations are available
● Touching or using things in the office without asking permission or to the distraction of
● Forgetting their wallet or credit card
● Having an overdue balance
● Frequently asking to pay their fees at times other than the time of service
● Not following through on their responsibilities with third-party payers like insurance
With any of these, from coming to a session late to forgetting a wallet, it happens
sometimes. Life is full of surprises. Don’t let the incident go unchecked.
The strongest recommendation is to think of every one of these as an opportunity
to examine your own biases, become aware of edges you and or the client may have
about certain emotional material, and to explore and manage boundaries with more
effectiveness and clarity. So let yourself get annoyed, stay curious, be brave, model respectful
assertiveness and open-hearted honesty, and offer clients the chance to grow their own
awareness, skills, and attitudes through your helping relationship.