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By Jean Rhodes February 18, 2016




We all know that mentoring relationships affect different youth in different ways. Even the most caring, consistent mentors may struggle to connect with certain youth, while other matches click from the start. Researchers have found that the quality of adult-youth relationships is conditioned by a wide range of individual, family, and contextual influences, including:

  1.  Interpersonal History

Children and adolescents who have enjoyed healthy relationships with their parents may more easily be drawn to adults as role models and confidants. In such cases, the relationship may focus more on the acquisition of skills and the advancement of critical thinking than on emotional issues. Researchers have  found that, compared with those who did not report having a natural mentor, adolescents with natural mentors recalled early relationships with their mothers as more accepting.

Soucy and Larose (2014) found evidence that the positive effects of mentors were stronger among those youths who reported having higher levels of security in their relationships with their mothers. This suggests that mentors may not entirely compensate for insecure family bonds. Instead, they may be beneficial as long as there is already a minimum level of support from at least one parent.

However, those who have experienced unsatisfactory or difficult parental ties may initially resist the overtures of a caring adult, but over time develop more intense bonds with their mentors that help to satisfy their social and emotional needs.

Mentoring relationships also may serve to compensate for absent relationships. Immigrant youths, for example, many of whom have suffered long separations from their parents, may gravitate to mentors for compensatory emotional support. Mentors may provide these youths with a safe haven for learning new cultural norms and practices, as well as with information that is vital to success in school (Roffman, Suarez-Orozco, & Rhodes, 2002; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003). The same holds true for youths in foster homes, many of whom have suffered child abuse and neglect. Rhodes et al. (2009) found that foster youths derived greater interpersonal benefits (i.e., improvements in peer relationships, heightened trust and comfort in interactions with others) than nonfoster youth.

  1. Social Competencies

Youth who are better able to regulate their emotions and who have positive temperaments and/or other engaging attributes may be primed for higher levels of involvement with adults than are peers who lack these attributes. Werner and Smith (1982), for example, observed that youths who had thrived despite adversity tend to have hobbies or other interests and a capacity to connect with adults through those activities. More generally, youths with higher levels of social competence tend to be held in higher regard by their peers and teachers (Morison & Masten, 1991).

The research on mentoring bears this out: Adolescents who are overwhelmed by social or behavioral problems tend to be less likely to benefit from mentoring. Grossman and Rhodes (2002), for example, found that mentoring relationships with adolescents who had been referred for psychological treatment or who had sustained emotional, sexual, or physical abuse were less likely to remain intact. Such youths appear to have more difficulties trusting adults and may have little experience with behaviors that establish and maintain closeness and support (Lynch & Cicchetti, 1997).

  1. Developmental Stage

The mentee’s age may also affect the nature and course of a mentoring relationship. For example, whereas early adolescents who are beginning to struggle with identity issues may wish to engage in abstract conversations with their mentors, children whose levels of cognitive sophistication are less advanced may benefit more from structured activities (Keating, 1990).

In addition, adolescents on the brink of adulthood may be less interested in establishing emotional ties with mentors, instead gravitating to peers and vocational skill-building activities. Older adolescents tend to be more peer oriented than their younger counterparts and less likely to sustain their involvement in structured mentoring programs. Indeed, researchers have found that relationships with older adolescents are characterized by lower levels of closeness , heightened risk for termination during any given month (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002), and shorter duration than those with younger youths.

A mentor who is attuned to his or her mentee’s developmental stage, and adjusts to it accordingly can create an optimal stage-environment fit  and are better positioned to meet the child’s developmental needs.


Posted in: Content for Non-Profits & Policy-Makers, Content for Researchers & Academics, Expert Corner by Jean Rhodes; The Chronicle of Evidence Based Mentoring