Counselor Ethical Boundaries and Practices

Categories: EthicsHealth

Part of being a counselor requires an understanding of dual relationships and the boundaries that are in place between a client and their counselor. Being a good counselor requires an understanding of the role that ethics plays in the professional relationship. Ethics are not simply a way of protecting the client but offer protection to the counselor as well.

Counselor Decision-Making and Counseling Examples

In the counseling profession dual relationships also known as multiple relationships can be defined as a situation in which multiples roles exists between the counselor and the client.

Callanan et al discuss the fact that when a counselor and a client “blend their professional relationship with a non-professional relationship, then ethical concerns must be considered (2014).” The boundaries that are set in place between a counselor and a client are done so to protect both parties. A counselor is in a position of power in the life of their client and if the boundaries are not in place, the counselor could take advantage of their client and cause difficulties for them.

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To determine if a boundary crossing or a dual relationship is ethical and appropriate with a client that I am treating I would look first to the ACA code of ethics to determine what is viewed as unethical dual relationships. The ACA code of ethics goes into some detail in regards to what is considered to be an unethical dual relationship. ACA Code A.5.a states that a “sexual and/or romantic counselor– client interactions or relationships with current clients, their romantic partners, or their family members are prohibited (2014).

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The code of ethics also explains that counselors are prohibited from providing counseling services to someone that they have previously had a sexual/romantic relationship with. If the situation that I am involved in is not covered within the ethical guidelines, then I would seek the advise of my supervisor or trusted colleague to determine what their thoughts are in regards to the situation that I have found myself in. In making my decision, I would look to determine that the decisions being made would not adversely affect my client or myself. I would also look to determine if the change in relationship would be therapeutic to my client. If I was dealing with a situation where I was sexually attracted to my client or my client was sexually attracted to me; I would look to the ACA code of ethics and determine that a sexual relationship with a client is considered unethical. Geyer believes “there seems to be considerable agreement within both secular and Christian circles that romantic or sexual relationships are always unethical concurrent with or during counseling and virtually always unethical afterwards (Dual Role Relationships and Christian Counseling, 1994).”

If during a counseling session with a client, they felt that I was not hearing them, it might be appropriate to do some self-disclosure. This is a boundary crossing but as long as the self-disclosure does not cause the client to feel negative effects then it is acceptable as a way to make sure the client understands the counseling is listening and understands what the client is feeling. If I was working in a small town that did not have other counseling options, then I might be placed in a position to have a dual relationship with a client. A friend could come to me needing assistance in dealing with an issue and due to the area that we live in, there might not be another counselor that they could go and see. In this situation, I believe a dual relationship would be allowed as long as the boundaries between friendship and counseling are fully laid out before beginning.

The friend would have to come into the sessions not as a friend but as a client, someone that I am there to assist without passing judgment. If I had been treating a client who had been involved in car crash where their actions caused the death of the passenger in the car, would it be ethical for me to cross the boundary of leaving the office and going to the site of the accident. I believe in this case that it would be acceptable for me to cross that boundary and go with my client as a support system as they are trying to come to terms with their actions that caused the death of another. By going with them to the site of the accident, they are able to have a sense of being protected as they process what transpired and led them to that point in their life.

Ethical Issues and Dimensions

The ACA Code of Ethics defines an appropriate amount of time of 5 years following the termination of therapy to be acceptable for a counselor to pursue a sexual/romantic relationship with a past client. I believe that in some instances 5 years would be a good amount of time to pass before looking for that type of relationship but in some cases longer might be better. I will have been in a very powerful position with my client and therefore depending on what they were receiving counseling for, it might not have been enough time for that power dynamic to have equaled out. If I were seeing a client and they invited me to their birthday party, this would be considered unethical because I would be seeing them outside of the counseling sessions.

If services have been terminated and we are the five years out of the counseling relationship, I would be able to attend the party without fear of my actions being unethical. How the relationship with the client ended also plays a part in being able to interact with them after termination of therapy. Lebaw (2014) states that there are different types of termination of counseling services; the termination of services can be carefully planned or be totally unplanned and based on cases that were either successful or unsuccessful. If the termination of services was a negative experience for the client, it might be more ethical to not interact with them after the ending of the counseling sessions.

Professional Collaboration Counseling

It is important for counselors and other stakeholders to work together in regards to the care of a client. There are different situations in which multiple areas of help will be needed for the clients’ safety and well-being and it is important that each member of the team is able to communicate effectively with one another.

Multidisciplinary Team

It is important for a counselor in certain situations to be able to work with other professionals to ensure the best care is being given to a client. If I have not been trained in handling addictions and have a client that is dealing with severe depression but is also an alcoholic then it would be beneficial for me to work in conjunction with their addiction counselor. Then as I am treating the client for their depression, the addiction counselor is working with them in regards to their alcohol addiction. In this case the addictions counselor and I would need to be able to communicate back and forth with one another to ensure that our client was receiving the best possible care for their co-occurring disorders. Also, with having another person involved in the care of the client it helps to keep the firm boundaries in place that maintains the safety of the client and myself. The addictions counselor and I would meet regularly to discuss our plans to achieve a detailed care plan that gives our client the best possible outcome. Staton and Gilligan (2003) define the objective of collaboration as “developing mutual agreement on ways to work together to provide the most effective services.”

Fiddler et al (2010) said that “meaningful engagement and decisions should be made in collaboration with the patient about his/her treatment and future management.” The client should be a part of the process of the care plan and not just being told what is going to be taking place, it allows the client to have a voice in their treatment. If my client did not wish for me to collaborate with their addictions counselor, wanting to keep the two areas separate then I would need to treat the client solely within the scope of the depression. I would not be able to provide my client with any advice as to why they are drinking or even why they find it difficult to stop drinking. As an individual counselor working alone with the client, I need to be sure that I do nothing unethical with the client. By knowing what I have been trained in and informing my client that because I do not have the experience or training to treat them in regards to their addiction, I am not only taking care of myself ethically but the client as well.

Part of the job of a supervisor-counselor relationship is for them to not only train the student in what it is to be a counselor, but to be a support system for the student. This puts the supervisor in a position of extreme importance to the student. Not only is the supervisor putting forth a grade on the students’ performance, but they are also being confided in by the student with the struggles the student is having. The supervisor could use this position to influence the student in an unethical way if they are not careful. It would be simple for the supervisor to manipulate the student’s feelings towards them.

These are very similar to the things that a counselor could do to a client if they did not monitor themselves. AS a counselor, you have the trust of your client that everything you are doing is being done to help them and not harm them. A criteria that could be used to determine if something a fellow counselor is being done is ethical or not is by knowing and being familiar with the ACA code of ethics as well as the laws of the state that I am practicing in. If I found a fellow counselor acting in an unethical way it would be my duty to report them to the licensing board. The board is the only one who has the right to pass judgment and sentence on a counselor who has behaved unethically.

Development of Ethics

Ponton stated “In whatever specialty counselors practice, they are asked to provide expertise to the problem of balancing an individual’s needs, strengths, and identity with the group or society within which that individual functions (2009).” Since taking this course I have become more familiar with the roles that ethics needs to play in the relationship between not only counselor and client; but counselor and counselor, and counselor and supervisor. That each of these relationships forms a chain that needs to be strong and well defined.

The role that ethics plays in the life of a counselor is something that is very important. Ethics are not just there to protect the client, they protect the counselor as well. From this course I have learned that there will be times when the lines between ethical and unethical are not going to be clearly defined; yet there is a support system available to me. I learned that there is nothing wrong with going to my community of counselors for support or direction when I am unsure of a step. This is a profession where not only do we help clients but we help each other.


Someone who is beginning in the counseling profession needs to be fully aware of the ethical guidelines set in place by not only the ACA but the state in which they are practicing. The code of ethics are not in place simply to protect the client; but to also provide protection to the counselor. The role of ethics and boundaries is important and something that a counselor will need to continuously watch and learn about as the work with clients. Though boundaries can fluctuate they should never be crossed in a way that could harm a client. As a counselor, I need to know what cases that I can treat and those that I can’t and be willing to work with others to give my clients the best possible care. There are ethical guidelines for not only the interaction with clients but for the interactions with other counseling professionals. Without ethics to guide a counselor in their practice, they are in a position to do major harm to their clients. This course has shown me that ethics are an integral part of the counseling profession and need to be respected.

American Counseling Association (2014). 2014 ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author Callanan, P., Corey, C., Corey, G., & Corey, M. (2014). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions. Stamford:CT Fiddler, M., Borglin, G., Galloway, A., Jackson, C., McGowan, L., & Lovell, K. (2010). Once-a-week psychiatric ward round or daily inpatient team meeting? A multidisciplinary mental health team’s experience of new ways of working. International Journal Of Mental Health Nursing, 19(2), 119-127. doi:10.1111/j.1447-0349.2009.00652.x Geyer, M. C. (1994). Dual Role Relationships and Christian Counseling. Journal Of Psychology & Theology, 22(3), 187-195. Lebow, J. (2014). Stages of therapy: Engagement, assessment, and termination. In , Couple and family therapy: An integrative map of the territory (pp. 151-170). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14255-007 Ponton, R. F., & Duba, J. D. (2009). The “ACA Code of Ethics”: Articulating Counseling’s Professional Covenant. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 87(1), 117-121. Staton, A. R., & Gilligan, T. D. (2003). Teaching School Counselors and School Psychologists to Work Collaboratively. Counselor Education & Supervision, 42(3), 162.

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Counselor Ethical Boundaries and Practices. (2016, Sep 13). Retrieved from

Counselor Ethical Boundaries and Practices

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