Defining role boundaries

Issues around role boundaries

Effectively managing boundaries in youth peer support programs requires giving adequate attention to the issue of role management. A role boundary is a clear definition of the duties, rights and limitations of facilitators, volunteers and program participants. Clearly defining the purpose of the program as well as the program facilitator’s and the peer volunteers’ roles and responsibilities (inside and outside the program) is important to avoid confusion or misperceptions among all of those involved. This includes what each of these roles encompasses and also what their limitations are. It should be ensured that these are well understood by the peer supporters themselves, as well as the service users and anybody else involved in the program. Role boundaries are crucial for the development of positive and effective relationships between facilitators, volunteers and participants; reduces the potential for harmful relationships and helps to ensure the mental and physical health of those involved.


Situation: Struggling to maintain clear role boundaries was experienced in a drop-in peer support program for sexuality/gender diverse young people. The program was facilitated by one coordinator whose role was compromised when she attempted to provide support for some group members who apparently required more support than other clients due to lacking social support networks accessible to them.

Issues: While the program coordinator felt it was her responsibility to help the clients, building up these relationships took up a lot of her time in terms of attending to emails, calls, and meetings outside of program hours, which consequently lead to exceeding the scope of her official role.The challenge experienced by the coordinator was to not push the clients away while at the same time maintaining the professional role boundaries of her position.

Response: The issue was managed by encouraging the young people to access other services that could help to broaden their social networks and increase the number of people they could ask for help.

Managing role boundaries

Establishing and maintaining clarity of roles will prevent a young person feeling pressure to take on something they are not experienced in or comfortable with. While peer supporters play a valuable role in providing help for other young people to deal with a variety of issues, dealing with certain problems should always involve the guidance of an adult supervisor responsible for the service. These include circumstances where a serious possibility of harm to the person seeking help or another person can occur, such as sexual or physical abuse, suicide threats or attempts, serious self-harm and mental illness.1

The introduction of a volunteer manual may assist in the process of defining roles; however, continuous communication with volunteers and participants is equally essential to serve as a reminder for both service providers and service users throughout the program.1 Regular communication and debriefing after sessions will help forestall any blurring of the boundaries, especially as empathy and relationships develop.

The Induction process should be formal and include provision of :

  • clear written position descriptions;
  • volunteer manual;
  • clear outline of training requirements;
  • completion of initial training (external provider);
  • clarirty around position of service regarding social networking sites ;(eg: recent issues with teachers and Facebook);
  • regular supervision;
  • ongoing training; and
  • regular updates of PD’s, volunteer manual and training regimen.

Read about how to manage relationship boundaries.


  1. Cowie, H & Wallace, P 2000, ‘Peer Support in Action’, Sage Publications, London, pp.176.