Ethical Issues In Counseling With Children And Adults

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated October 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Ethical issues in counseling generally fall on the therapist, and navigating situations that may cause marriage cognitive dissonance can be particularly challenging in maintaining professional standards. This means that it is the therapist’s responsibility to avoid unethical interactions with clients. This article will take a closer look at what the therapist’s ethical responsibilities entail and examine some common ethical problems faced by mental health professionals.

Maintaining Boundaries

Are You Seeking Professional Counseling And Not Sure Where To Turn?

The most common ethical issue faced by mental health professionals is maintaining boundaries. At times it can be difficult to ensure that you are not developing a personal relationship with a client. Sometimes clients may blur or attempt to blur the lines because of how the therapist-client relationship develops. For example, a client might form a strong attachment to their therapist who appears to be more than professional. It is important for the therapist to maintain and re-establish boundaries as needed.

Therapists also should not counsel someone who they know personally or are personally connected to, even if the connection is removed, such as the parent of one of their child’s friends. 

Professional Ability

Therapists are generally best trained in certain areas of therapy. A specific therapist may be skilled in working with children, helping people with marriage problems, or using specific types of treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is essential that a therapist only provide the therapy that they have been trained to provide. For example, according to the American Psychological Association’s “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct”, psychologists are to provide mental health care “only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience”. If a client needs a different type of therapy, it is the therapist’s ethical responsibility to help the client find someone else, or at least let the client know that they need to find someone else.

Personal Problems

Therapists are responsible for maintaining a standard of professionalism. They must keep their personal and professional lives as separate as possible. This can be difficult in some instances, and mental health professionals are only human. This means that things will happen in their lives that may affect their ability to be an effective counselor for their clients. When these things happen, the therapist must find a way to work through the issue at hand.

If a therapist can separate their personal problems from their professional life and carry on with their work, they can do so ethically. If they are unable to do so, then they must take a leave or otherwise remove themselves from situations where they are responsible for counseling others. A therapist in the middle of a contentious divorce, who has recently lost a loved one, or who is experiencing addiction should seek out professional help for themselves. They should take a break from counseling clients if their ability to counsel effectively is impaired.

Respecting Client Differences

Clients come from different backgrounds, walks of life, and cultures. A mental health professional is required to respect all differences and to maintain a level of professionalism and courtesy with those who have different backgrounds, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings from their own. If the therapist is unable do this for any reason, they should seek out professional training until they are able to do so.

Getting the Authorities Involved

In certain situations, however, a therapist is required to get the authorities involved. Depending on the state in which a therapist practices, this may include when a client presents an immediate risk to themselves or others. In rare events, they may even have to warn another party if they have reason to believe their client is going to harm that person. For example, according to the American Psychological Association, psychologists can information to “protect the client/patient, psychologist, or others from harm”.

Therapists are also required to report suspected child and elder abuse and neglect. Laws vary by state, so if you have specific questions, you can check with your state’s licensure board for mental health professions or talk to your own therapist.

Maintain Their Role

A therapist is intended to help an individual (or sometimes a group or couple) reach healthy decisions on their own. Mental health professionals are to facilitate the decision-making process for the participant and ensure there is informed consent before they work with clients. The American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics provides the following ethical guidelines regarding informed consent: “Clients have the freedom to choose whether to enter into or remain in a counseling relationship and need adequate information about the counseling process and the counselor”.

Therapists generally focus on helping their clients make decisions for themselves, which includes helping them consider their own values and beliefs, not the beliefs of the therapist. Therapists help clients make plans and decisions, but they don’t generally tell their clients what to do, and they should never impose their own values and beliefs on their clients.

Maintaining Therapy

Once therapy begins, the therapist is required to continue working with that client as long as the client is benefiting from treatment and wishes to continue. If the therapist discontinues services, it could be considered abandonment.

This does not mean, however, that the client dictates all aspects of the therapeutic relationship. The therapist could need to change hours, move, or have a host of reasons that would make it too difficult to continue therapy with the client. When this is the case, the therapist needs to give the client notice and provide the client with appropriate referrals so treatment is not disrupted.

Provide Proper Testimony

In some situations, a therapist may be called on to give expert testimony in a court case or a custody battle. In these situations, it is important that the therapist provide accurate and complete testimony about what they have found and report only the facts. Staying focused on specific clinical information and assessments is imperative. The therapist should never have a vested interest in any particular outcome from this type of testimony.

Monitoring Other Therapists

If the therapist in question is responsible for an entire office or a group of therapists, they must monitor what those other therapists are doing. They need to pay attention to whether the other therapists in their facility are also maintaining the ethical guidelines discussed in this article. If they’re not, the therapist in charge would be responsible for issuing reprimands, requiring additional training, or removing specific therapists from their positions. If they don’t, this could be considered an ethical violation.

Proper Billing Procedures

What does billing have to do with ethics? In fact, there is an important connection. Therapists, just like anyone else who bills for an office call or hourly appointment, are responsible for proper billing. Whether they are billing a client directly or an insurance company, they must make sure that they bill only for the services that are provided and accurately account for the time that is spent on a visit. These types of billing responsibilities help maintain ethical standards. For example, the American Psychological Association has guidelines for ethical dilemmas regarding billing that include how fees should be represented, records maintained, and compensation agreed upon.

Working With A Therapist

Are You Seeking Professional Counseling And Not Sure Where To Turn?

When working with a therapist, keep in mind the above ethical standards that your therapist must maintain. Whether you meet with an in-person or online therapist, the ethical standards remain the same. Asking your therapist about their licensure, how many hours of experience they have, their billing process, or anything else that pertains to your treatment should be accepted and answered by your therapist. If your therapist seems less than forthcoming, it might be time to consider seeking a new therapist who is more open.

BetterHelp Provides Counseling

You may ask, "Are there child counselors near me?" If you are seeking online professional counseling and aren’t sure where to turn, you can log on to BetterHelp. You’ll be able to find a mental health professional who can talk to you about anything you’re experiencing at a time convenient for you. You can also do it from the comfort of your own home. The counselors are licensed, and all possess at least three years and 2,000 hours of hands-on experience. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing different issues and life challenges.

Counselor Reviews

“Vanessa listens to me with complete focus and analyzes all the information I give her to give me very practical and realistic support and suggestions. She has significantly improved my life through her experience and knowledge in a very short time. She’s been great at helping me deal with my disability issues, family issues, relationship as well as career. She’s got everything covered so I feel less worried and feel safe that I have a plan to keep all these things in check. I don’t feel alone.”

I am THRILLED with Rachel and with BetterHelp! It is affordable, I am a single mom with 4 kids on a tight budget and a LOT of stress and this format makes it easy to get help. I LOVE that I can write my feelings to her whenever I am having them, not have to wait a week for the next session. She is very insightful and I am thankful!”


As with most jobs, dramatic ethical issues are uncommon in therapy. Still, it is important to seek out a well-credentialed therapist who has gone through a professional vetting process. Change starts with one first step. Take that step today.

Receive evidence-based counseling

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started