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Ethics of Self-Disclosure With Children and Adolescents
By Jessica Crowe, MSW, LCSW

“Do you even know what Tumblr is?” a new 16-year-old client asked while I was driving her home from school. I wasn’t familiar with Tumblr, but I knew that I needed to be interested in it to start building a therapeutic relationship with this client.

I wouldn’t want to be a teenager growing up in 2014. In addition to all of the transitions that adolescents experience in middle and high school, now they can experience incidents on social media that affect their mood and behavior.

Identity vs. Role Confusion
As Erikson explains in the fifth stage of psychosocial development, adolescents are exploring their own identity, including their interests, aspirations, and sexual orientation and who they want to be in life. Adolescents are in a different stage of life than adults, as they often test boundaries, experiment with peers, and don’t always trust adults. 

Because adolescents are in this stage of development, social workers may need a different approach when engaging them in treatment. However, when working with adolescents, it can be easier for the boundaries to be blurred within the therapeutic relationship. How much can social workers self-disclose in an attempt to connect with clients? Is it appropriate to do so?

Adolescents can experience different types of transference with social workers due to their age and emotional development. Adolescents can see social workers as a grandparent, parent, sibling, or friend. In the same sense, social workers may experience countertransference with adolescent clients due to the client’s younger age. If boundaries are unclear, social workers could begin to see a client as a younger sibling, cousin, friend, etc. 

According to Reamer (2006a), social workers should pay close attention to the NASW Code of Ethics and continue to review ethical standards that pertain to self-disclosure, including boundaries, conflicts of interest, and dual relationships (standards 1.06[a-c], 4.05[a-b]).

Most types of therapeutic services, and therefore client-social worker relationships, are short-term. It can be confusing to adolescents if social workers utilize self-disclosure as an intervention to build rapport and make connections. Adolescents may forget that the social worker won’t be in their lives for an extended period of time. Adolescent clients can be harmed if social workers don’t have clear boundaries with them. 

Self-Disclosure With Minors
How can social workers connect with children and adolescents without disclosing too much personal information? I couldn’t create a Tumblr account and become friends with my client on social media. However, I also couldn’t ignore the client's interest with this form of communication.

When working with children and adolescents, social workers will encounter uncertainty with boundaries resulting in ethical issues, often those regarding self-disclosure. Children and adolescents tend to ask questions inquiring about a social worker's personal life, such as “How old are you?” “Do you have any children?” and “What did you do over the weekend?” A core concept taught in graduate school is the ethical implications that self-disclosure can have on clients.

Although there’s current literature discussing the positive impact that self-disclosure may have on the client-social worker relationship, there’s also current literature discussing inappropriate use of social workers' self-disclosure. Many ethical issues could arise if social workers disclose personal information to a client due to the impact that self-disclosure may have on the client and the client-social worker boundary (Audet & Everall, 2010).

Anticipated Ethical Issues
It may be difficult to determine whether self-disclosing personal information will benefit or harm clients (Gibson, 2012). One way to anticipate whether a disclosure is appropriate for a client is to explore how the disclosure may benefit the client.  

There’s a fine line between too much and too little self-disclosure. Research suggests that it’s beneficial for social workers to find a balance when disclosing personal information to clients (Gibson).

Social workers should follow certain criteria when deciding what they should and shouldn’t disclose to clients (Carew, 2009). Reamer (2011) discusses, within the context and duration of the disclosure, that self-disclosures shouldn’t change the client’s focus, distort the client-social worker relationship, or happen frequently. Also, it’s important to ask the client for feedback when the social worker uses self-disclosure in practice to allow the client to process the disclosure and understand the reasoning behind it.

Here are some questions to consider before disclosing personal information to an adolescent:

• How will my client benefit from knowing this information?

• Is there a way that I can validate and empathize with my client without self-disclosing information?

• What are the reasons behind my feeling to self-disclose?

• Am I being triggered by these discussions with clients during sessions in an attempt to be mindful of using self-skills while in session?

• What would my supervisor say or think about this situation? 

• Do I have unresolved emotional issues that are causing me to want to share this information?

• Am I nervous if I don’t share this information or answer my client's question that the client will be upset with me?

• How will my client interpret my self-disclosure?

Gaines (2003) discusses the importance for the social worker to understand how the client interprets these answers. According to Audet and Everall, reporting personal information to a client could impact the client’s view of the social worker. A client may begin to view the social worker as a friend and may experience confusion regarding the role change. However, not responding to a client’s question could be viewed as rude and negatively impact the client-social worker relationship (Carew).

Nature of the Self-Disclosure
Regarding adolescent clients, Gaines discusses building rapport through common interests such as music and movies. This type of light disclosure can assist social workers with building a positive, therapeutic alliance (Audet & Everall).

I have used TV shows as an intervention to explore relationships within an adolescent's life. Many adolescents watch the ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars, and some of my clients know that I watch it as well. I’ve watched this show to familiarize myself with the characters and understand the issues within the show to address certain topics with my clients.

This type of self-disclosure has been beneficial for rapport building, processing relationships within the client's own family, and gaining insight into the client's perception of certain situations. However, letting my client know where I’m watching the TV show, who I’m watching the show with, and that certain characters remind me of my own family members and friends wouldn’t be appropriate. It would turn a light disclosure into a potentially harmful, personal self-disclosure.

According to Audet and Everall, a client may become confused as to why the social worker is disclosing personal information, which could then impact the client’s opinion regarding the social worker’s level of competency. The researchers say this also could affect the client’s treatment and negatively influence the client-social worker relationship. 

As Reamer states (2006b), according to the Code of Ethics, it’s also important for social workers to address any concerns regarding a colleague's ethical conduct. If a colleague isn’t adhering to the Code of Ethics, it’s the social workers' duty to consult and assist that colleague with taking corrective action (standards 2.09[a-b]; 2.10[a-b], 2.11[a-d]).

Alternative Interventions
Gaines discusses how utilizing play therapy as an intervention with children could be used as a tool to build open communication and trust rather than disclosing personal information. The research examines how social workers can disclose part of their personality with children through playful activities and allow children to see social workers as genuine and humane.

With regard to adolescent clients, Gaines discusses building rapport through common interests such as music and movies. As previously mentioned, these types of light disclosures can assist social workers with building a positive, therapeutic alliance with adolescents.

According to Knight (2010), researchers suggest that social worker self-disclosures involving thoughts and reactions to in-the-moment situations are more beneficial than disclosing personal information. Also, using body language and facial expressions provide a client with information about the social worker (Gibson). I believe that being aware of body language and facial expressions in session is just as important as verbal communication.

Providing empathy with children and adolescents can be more beneficial than providing self-disclosures, which can change the course of the conversation and highlight the social worker's life instead of the client's life.

I’ve come to realize that an ethical issue can arise during any type of discussion focusing on social workers disclosing personal information. Although light disclosure can assist social workers to build rapport with a client, social worker disclosures focusing on personal relationships, sexual issues, and/or current issues in the social worker’s life could be harmful to the client (Knight).

— Jessica Crowe, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical supervisor of multisystemic therapy and clinician at Tides Family Services.



Audet, C. T., & Everall, R. D. (2010). Therapist self-disclosure and the therapeutic relationship: a phenomenological study from the client perspective. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 38(3), 327-342.

Carew, L. (2009). Does theoretical background influence therapists’ attitudes to therapist self-disclosure? A qualitative study. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 9(4), 266-272.

Gaines, R. (2003). Therapist self-disclosure with children, adolescents, and their parents. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(5), 569-580.

Gibson, M. F. (2012). Opening up: therapist self-disclosure in theory, research. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40(3), 287-296.

Knight, C. (2012). Social workers’ attitudes towards and engagement in self-disclosure. Clinical Social Work Journal, 40(3), 297-306.

Reamer, F. G. (2006a). Self-disclosure in clinical social work. Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_1106.shtml.

Reamer, F. G. (2006b). Social work values and ethics. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Reamer, F. G. (2011). The boundaries of self-disclosure in clinical social work.Retrieved May 14, 2014, from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_011111.shtml.