physical contact social work ethicsAs we continue working our way through the NASW Code of Ethics, we next come to 1.10 Physical Contact. This is a short one. Here it is in full:

Social workers should not engage in physical contact with clients when there is a possibility of psychological harm to the client as a result of the contact (such as cradling or caressing clients). Social workers who engage in appropriate physical contact with clients are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern such physical contact.

Simple enough. But there's vagueness enough to open the way for a lot of possible exam questions. Most of them would likely be about hugging. When is it okay to hug a client? When should a client's request for a hug be refused? How is hugging seen differently from culture to culture? From person to person?

You probably have the answers at hand to most of these (Sometimes; when sexualized/boundary-breaking; lots of different ways; lots of different ways.)  So now apply that to an exam question:

A client reports feeling like he's had a breakthrough in an emotional session with a social worker and asks for a hug at the end of the session. How should the social worker respond?

A) Hug the client and discuss boundaries in the next session.

B) Hug the client as requested.

C) Refuse the hug and discuss boundaries in the next session.

D) Offer a handshake instead of a hug.

What'd you get? There's not a whole lot of information about the players here. You don't know the therapist's gender; you don't know the client's sexual orientation; you don't have cultural information or a diagnosis. What all that means is, you don't really have a reason that the social worker shouldn't hug the client. There's no indication that this particular instance of physical contact between therapist and client risks harm. So our answer is B.

If the hug lingered awkwardly, a discussion of boundaries would probably be called for in the next session. If the client was diagnosed with BPD or had a history of boundary violations or intense transference, maybe the hug would be unwise. But this seems to be a non-awkward, non-boundary violating request from a generic client of a generic social worker. Refusing the hug, in that scenario, is more likely to be hurtful than hugging as requested. Hug away.

Some reading on the topic:

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November 19, 2015
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