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Got ethics? Dilemmas in youth work

By Kate Walker

Do you answer personal questions to build relationships with youth? Do you give money to a young person in a hard situation? Do you accept a request from a former program participant to friend them on Facebook or add them on Instagram? Do you address it if you suspect a participant is high during the program?

Youth workers face ethical dilemmas like these every day. These are just a few that I heard about at a recent training on ethics and boundaries in youth work. Participants were asked to consider where they stand, and dig into why.

To examine the ethical principles and values that guide how one responds to dilemmas like these, we shared the Ethical conduct in youth work: A statement of values and principles from the National Youth Agency, in the United Kingdom. It outlines the basic principles underpinning the work, with the aim of guiding the conduct of youth workers and managers, and to focus debate about ethical issues in practice.

It is not a rulebook for every situation. Rather, it is a starting point for outlining the broad principles of ethical conduct, raising awareness of the multiple responsibilities (and potential conflicts) of youth workers and their managers, and encouraging and stimulating ethical reflection and debate.

The first part of the statement covers ethical principles. It states that youth workers have a commitment to:
  • Treat young people with respect, valuing each individual and avoiding negative discrimination.
  • Respect and promote young people's rights to make their own decisions and choices, unless the welfare or legitimate interests of themselves or others are seriously threatened.
  • Promote and ensure the welfare and safety of young people, while permitting them to learn through undertaking challenging educational activities.
  • Contribute towards the promotion of social justice for young people and in society generally, through encouraging respect for difference and diversity and challenging discrimination.

The second part of the statement covers professional principles. It states that youth workers have commitment to:
  • Recognize the boundaries between personal and professional life and be aware of the need to balance a caring and supportive relationship with young people with appropriate professional distance.
  • Recognize the need to be accountable to young people, their parents or guardians, colleagues, funders, wider society and others with a relevant interest in the work, and that these accountabilities may be in conflict.
  • Develop and maintain the required skills and competence to do the job.
  • Work for conditions in employing agencies where these principles are discussed, evaluated and upheld.

Using this statement as inspiration, participants wrote their own personal codes of ethics. We then revisited their dilemmas and explored how participants might apply their codes to them.

Which commitments most align with your own ethical principles, beliefs, and values? What is missing from this statement for you? How could an ethical statement like this help or hinder good youth work practice?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

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  1. This is really interesting. My PhD is on a similar subject - though I'm considering why ethical practices differs in different sectors - particularly differences between church based and 'secular' youth clubs. My Masters dissertation used a questionnaire to compare different sectors, and asked (on a scale of 1-5) how much of an over-stepping of boundary were certain situations. For example, having sex with a young person was obviously a serious boundary violation from across all respondents - but accepting a facebook friend request, sharing a personal phone number, and inviting young people to your home showed (from memory) the greatest variation.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Peter. Your research sounds fascinating. What are you learning? Were the youth workers in secular program more or less likely to consider these situations a boundary violation? I imagine your 1-5 scale would be challenging – most youth workers I talk with would answer, “it depends...” I'd love to hear more about your work!

  3. You're right - in a few cases when people filled the out in front of me they said exactly that - and some people put that on the comments section at the end of the survey. It was also relatively small scale 0- only about 55 respondents, and all from one small town. So for some of the scenarios I asked people to rate 1-5 in terms of a boundary violation there was almost no distinction (though, the scale had descriptors ranging from 'no boundary violation' to 'serious violation, significant disciplinary action required'). However, for a few there was a very large difference, for example:

    faith based youth workers were twice as likely to have met a young person outside of the normal working hours.
    71% of faith based youth workers said the young people know where they live, compared to 21% secular.
    Every single respondent from a secular club said it was unacceptable to have young people as 'facebook friends', with about half of those from faith based organsations saying it was acceptable.
    a final example - 18% of faith based workers agreed with the statement 'personal and youth work lives should be completely separate', compared to 81% of those in statutory organisations.

    The problems you mentioned are partly why I've moved to a more ethnographic approach - observing different youth work settings, to be followed with interviews with youth workers and focus groups with young people. I've narrowed it slightly to thinking about what is considered 'ethical' when building relationships with young people - working on the assumption the relationship is the most significant factor in youth work.
    But - as of yet - I'm finding a limited difference in practice, but a huge difference in management expectation (with 'secular' club's management producing greater amounts of policy, paper work, and targets that affect the relationship) and rhetoric from youth workers.

  4. Thanks again, Peter – wow, what you’re discovering is super interesting! I’m especially intrigued by the differences in management expectations. I also like that you’re tapping into young people’s perspectives. My dissertation research was on how youth workers balance multiple ways of being with young people -- feel free to email me at

  5. Bronwyn Tahana-HopkinsFebruary 12, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    Hi I found your findings very interesting Peter Walker!
    I am a youth worker - both for my church youth ministry AND as a head tutor for an Alternative Education Programme - and can fully agree with those statistics in my own experience.
    I find the 'boundaries' within youth ministry are still very obvious and clear but definitely different from those within the other programme I lead.
    I think within youth ministry the relationship you build with that young person is at the centre of everything you do - great life long friendships are created (you are invited to their weddings, birthday's, become like Aunty's and Uncle's to their children), where as in a more formalised programme structure where there are many other 'goals' (such as education), the relationship is still highly important and pivotal - but the other goals are close behind - you are there to input into their life for that 'moment in time' and encourage them to go on from that - which means moving on from that programme.
    I find the relationships you develop with young people in a youth ministry setting are for life - where some youth programmes are just that 'youth programmes' for that season in their life - then they move on.
    ...just thought I'd share some thoughts of my own :)

  6. Thank you for the reply - as coincidence would have it, I've just submitted an article to the Journal of Youth and Theology on the issue of professional boundaries. It doesn't claim to be answering many questions, but is starting to ask some about an under researched area.
    Fingers crossed it'll be published!

  7. Peter, Kate and Bronwyn, thank you very very much for this very valuable discussion that you have created above. Initiated with Peter's amazing research -very interesting findings, loved reading about it- , Kate's additions and Bronwyn's personal interest made it valuable to read. I work as a youth mentor myself, and I was researching about ethical dilemmas in youth work for my counselling assignment, when I came across this webpage on Google. It definitely was great to find this article and the discussion further.
    Good luck Peter by the way, I really hope they publish your article. Inspiring to see scientists focusing on such important but maybe overlooked areas !


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