Ethical dilemmas in counseling scenarios

Written by steve middendorp
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Ethical dilemmas in counseling scenarios
Ethical responsibilities in counselling can vary based on the specific situation. (Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Counsellors may work with several different clients on a daily basis. The nature of the relationship creates many potential ethical scenarios that the counsellor will have to face. The American Psychological Association (APA) has its own code of ethics for counselling situations. Another resource for counsellors is the American Counseling Association (ACA) ethical handbook. These two guides offer the same basic principles for ethical counselling.

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Dual Relationship

A dual relationship is when there is another role in addition to the counselling relationship. Sexual and romantic relationships between counsellors and clients are deemed unethical by both APA and ACA standards. A counsellor should not accept a new client that is a close friend or family member of a current client. Other dual relationships may be acceptable. A counsellor should evaluate how the second relationship will affect the counselling relationship. If the dual relationship could be detrimental to the client's progress then the counsellor should not pursue this relationship.


Counsellors are to be confidential with client information. This rule also applies to the counsellor's family and friends. Information from counselling sessions should not be disclosed for any reason. There are only three exceptions to this rule. The first is if the counsellor suspects child abuse or endangerment. The second is if there is a statement regarding elderly abuse. The third exception is if there is an immediate threat to anybody's life. Under these circumstances, the counsellor should still let the client know that this information is going to be disclosed and to whom it is being disclosed.

Boundary Issues

In addition to dual relationships, there are other boundary issues that may arise from the counsellor/client relationship. Counsellor self-disclosure can be considered crossing the line. It is not necessarily unethical for a counsellor to disclose information to the client. Most of the APA and ACA ethical rules have grey areas with room for interpretation. Self-disclosure should only be used if there is a clear benefit for the client in doing so. Any amount of self-disclosure has the potential of alienating the client and halting any progress from the counselling relationship.

Personal Bias

There are a number of personal values that can cause bias on the part of the counsellor in a counselling relationship. A counsellor should recognise any biases that exist in a relationship and make a decision that will be most beneficial for the client. If personal beliefs and values will hinder the ability of the counsellor to help the client, then he should recommend a different counsellor. In some cases, however, it is useful to disclose this personal belief to the client.

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