Clarifying relationship boundaries

Issues around relationship boundaries

Within the concept of boundary management also lies the issue of relationship boundaries. It has shown to be critical for peer supporters to understand the difference between a helping relationship and a friendship. This separation seems to be particularly difficult to negotiate in an environment such as in a youth centre where the interaction between the participants and peer supporters takes place on a casual and frequent basis.1

Furthermore, when program facilitators and peer supporters assume informal roles outside regular program hours or after a program is completed difficulties can be experienced, e.g. how to act if they meet participants or want to continue the rapport and provision of support.

If no clear rules on relationship boundaries are in place, it is possible that peer supporters and/or participants become so close to each other that they actually become friends. The problem with this is that friends do not have boundaries as they are set up by the program. On the one hand, facilitating this process can actually contribute to the effectiveness of the program as it allows young people the freedom to talk about their own lives and to enjoy being part of the group. On the other hand, once friendships are formed the boundaries become blurred, which can make it difficult for peer supporters to remain objective in their role and it may as well lead to changed group dynamics.


In one particular case, developing close relationships among program participants led to a peer support group targeting youth at risk of mental health problems initially meeting only occasionally, to group members being there early to socialise before the program started, to the group members becoming so excited and confident that they wanted to run peer support programs to go out to schools to talk to other young people themselves. The difficulty encountered here lay in slowing down this process in order to ensure maintenance of appropriate boundaries even though the program appeared to work well and was obviously achieving its intended objectives.

On the contrary, loosening the boundaries too much might dramatically change the group dynamics in a negative way. This can be exemplified with the case of a peer support drop-in program for teenage mothers/parents. The service users connected well with each other, which initially was seen as a positive sign. However, over the course of the program the situation escalated as the establishment of close relationships among participants led to them having sexual relationships with other participants’ partners. Due to missing guidelines on managing relationship boundaries difficulties were experienced in resolving the situation. A great deal of sensitivity and leadership was required on the part of the program coordinator to manage increasing tensions within the group and avoid jeopardising trusting relationships within the group.

Group developed rules can play a role here – e.g. at the start of the group have a session where the group sets the rules or facilitate consideration of examples of behaviour to assist the process.

Managing relationship boundaries

Setting clear boundaries and being explicit from the start of the program for all of those involved is recommended for any peer support program. The following suggestions are offered for more specific situations:

  • To avoid a friendship-like relationship developing between peer supporters and participants, it is important for peer supporters to understand that when they are acting in the peer supporter role, the focus of the interaction ought to remain on the recipient’s needs.2
  • Establishing and maintaining the boundaries of time and place for peer supporters carrying out their helper role, e.g. by peer supporters wearing badges when they are ‘on duty’, to clarify they are available as peer supporters only at specified times and places.1
  • Encouraging peer supporters to recognise their personal needs, normalising them and providing a structured process to adequately manage their needs, e.g. supervision or debriefing, or peer supporters providing support for each other.1
  • Teaching peer supporters to recognise signs that indicate they are becoming too involved or the person seeking help is becoming too dependent on them, and providing advice on how to deal with these situations, e.g. what to do when someone has given out their personal phone number.1
  • Use of first names only and clear direction as to private and mobile phone numbers and home addresses.

Raising awareness of these issues at the start of the program can be done verbally but also reinforced with welcome flyers that include guidelines and signing of written consents which outline explicit consequences if these are breached. Scenario-based training may also be helpful for new peer supporters. It can be beneficial to provide the training externally as this may have the potential to pass on stronger messages and guidelines to participants – internal presenters can sometimes present own practice rather than best practice

Reflection sessions are a good method for  increasing awareness of boundaries and their complexity and to revisit the purposes of the program. If  carried out during the course of the program, reflection sessions can help to analyse the direction that relationships may be taking. Reminder posters can be put up on the walls to further increase the awareness of all staff, volunteers and participants involved.


  1. Cowie, H & Wallace, P 2000, ‘Peer Support in Action’, Sage Publications, London, pp.176.
  2. Bacharach, S, Bamberger, P, and McKinney, V 2000, Boundary management tactics and logics of action: The case of peer-support providers, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 704.