Side Hugs and Open Doors: Healthy Boundaries with Students

I’m an awkward hugger—I have been since I was young. My signature move is to go in for a handshake, only to realize that you’re about to hug me. I quickly switch to a hug, but you’ve already switched to a handshake. We meet in the middle with that weird half handshake, half hug no one ever executes well.

Needless to say, the awkward side hug is a ministry norm I readily embrace and celebrate. It take all of the confusion out of greetings, moments when comfort or celebration is in order, or any other situation in which a hug might be appropriate.

Boundaries are important, and that awkward side hug has an important place in youth ministry. Youth workers without healthy boundaries put themselves at risk for a whole host of problems that include burnout, misjudged relational boundaries, and even legal trouble. Even worse, if we don’t demonstrate to young people what healthy boundaries with caring adults look like, we increase their risk of falling prey to unsafe adults with evil intentions.

When we have healthy boundaries with our students, they learn how to identify unsafe adults and avoid those people.

It’s important to set healthy boundaries in four key places. If you’re new to ministry, establish these now. If you’re a seasoned youth worker, it’s time to evaluate how well you’re doing in these areas.

  1. The Time Boundary

My students knew I wasn’t available before 7:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. If you have a safe way of communicating with students (a shared phone, messaging service, or social media profile that other people check), let them know that after a certain hour you’re offline. Many youth workers worry about emergency situations: suicide, death in the family, serious accident, etc. Set up a secure line or e-mail with an alert for these situations. A breakup is not an emergency situation. A fight with mom and dad (unless there’s violence involved) is not an emergency situation. “I’m bored” is not an emergency situation. These can wait until tomorrow. This will help your students recognize that you have boundaries, and it will keep you from getting burned out.

  1. The Space Boundary

My youth ministry team had a rule we all followed: Never meet with a teenager alone behind closed doors.

This doesn’t just mean rooms at your church. This means a car, cabin, house, on a boat—you get the idea. There are certain spaces you cannot go, and a room with a closed door is one of them. This is part of creating a truly “safe space.” If you need to meet privately with a teen, go to a part of the room where you’re still visible. Let another adult know you’re meeting with someone in case the room clears out—that way the other adult can hang around and pretend to clean something, text on a phone, or read a book.

  1. The Information Boundary

Ministry isn’t a two-way street when it comes to sharing information. A student may spill his or her heart out to you, tell you about relationship problems or family issues, or share some big joys and successes with you. It would be inappropriate for you to share at the same level. There are good things you can and should share—but your marital problems are off limits. The parties you went to in college and the crazy things you did should be kept to yourself. You can selectively share in the interest of instruction, but this isn’t the same as peer-to-peer sharing.

  1. The Physical Boundary

This is the one we usually think of when we think about boundaries. It’s where the awkward side hug comes in. It’s the one that’s most obvious when it’s violated—most of us know what healthy physical boundaries look like. So only two notes here:

First, be consistent. You can’t tell students you aren’t allowed to give them full-on hugs and then wrestle with them. Respect their space, and let them know they need to respect yours. Your students are going to want to joke around, wrestle, and be physically goofy as signs of affection. That’s affirming and great—just remind them you aren’t going to engage in it. They’ll laugh it off and not take offense. But the moment you stop being consistent, problems will arise.

Second, say something. If you see another adult, volunteer, youth worker, or trusted adult who doesn’t seem to have healthy physical boundaries, say something. Approach that person and have the tough conversation. Most of the time, people won’t even realize what they’re doing and they’ll be apologetic. But this may help you avoid a serious situation. If the situation already seems serious, many churches have reporting lines you can call anonymously.

Be proactive with boundaries. Get your team on board with these four things, and your ministry will transform into a safer and more comfortable place. You’ll not only equip students with the gospel, but you’ll also potentially protect them from a lifetime of hurt. That’s worth more than any number of awkward side hugs.


joelJoel Stepanek has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over ten years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock-ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for Life Teen International where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. Joel is a sought after speaker and has traveled across the world training youth ministers and speaking to teenagers.  He is the author of two books, The Greatest Job on Earth: Seven Virtues of Awesome Youth Ministers,” and True North: A Roadmap for Discernment.”

Joel received a Master of the Arts degree in religious education with an emphasis in youth and young adult ministry from Fordham University. Joel is an avid Packer fan (and owner), loves cooking, weightlifting, and spending time with his wife and children, Elijah Daniel and Sophia Grace.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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