10 research-based tips for building strong helping relationships with youth

by Jean Rhodes

Particularly since good working relationships between youth and mentors are the stock and trade of formal mentoring programs, it is surprising that the field has not sought to more directly benefit from the decades of careful clinical research on working alliances. Along these lines, University of South Florida psychologist Marc Karver and his colleagues recently conducted a major review of youth therapeutic alliances. Across the 28 studies encompassing 2,419 children and adolescents (average age 12.38), the overall effect size of the working alliance was significant and moderately strong (.39). Based on this comprehensive analysis they offer several tips for building relationships with youth, many of which have implications for the field of youth mentoring. These include suggested stances (e.g., being friendly, open, trusting, culturally sensitive, not taking mistrust personally) as well recommendations to build strong alliances with parents and caregivers. Indeed, therapists’ relationships with children and adolescents’ parents and caregivers was of the same magnitude as the therapist-youth alliance. Even when mentors feel close with their mentees, a failure to connect with the parent can weaken the relationship, particularly if parent feel threatened by the bond. The findings of the meta-analysis were then distilled into a set of suggestions for effective adult-youth relationship formation and maintenance.

These recommendations are likely to be widely applicable to the field of youth mentoring. Programs should measure the alliance, not just at the beginning and end of the program but throughout. To this end, the authors reviewed 17 different adult-youth relationship measures, and recommending recommended the Therapeutic Alliance Scale for Children–Revised, which includes youth and parent versions.

Therapeutic Alliance Scales for Children

  1. I like spending time with my therapist.
  2. I find it hard to work with my therapist on solving problems in my life.
  3. I feel like my therapist is on my side and tries to help me.
  4. I work with my therapist on solving my problems.
  5. When I’m with my therapist, I want the sessions to end quickly.
  6. I look forward to meeting with my therapist.
  7. I feel like my therapist spends too much time working on my problems.
  8. I’d rather do other things than meet with my therapist.
  9. I use my time with my therapist to make changes in my life.
  10. I like my therapist.
  11. I would rather not work on my problems with my therapist.
  12. I think my therapist and I work well together on dealing with my problems.

Explanation from Ormhaug, Shirk, and Wentzel-Larsen (2015)

TASC-r (Shirk & Karver, 2010; Shirk & Saiz 1992) is a self-reported scale that includes 12 items. These are worded as statements regarding the youths’ feelings towards the therapist (e.g., ‘‘I like my therapist’’) and their self-perceived involvement in therapeutic tasks (e.g., ‘‘I work with my therapist to solve problems in my life’’). Six of the items are developed to cover the bond-aspect of the alliance (items 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, and 10) and six items to relate to the tasks of therapy (items 2, 4, 7, 9, 11, and 12). All items are answered on a 4-point Likert scale (Not at all to Very much).