A qualitative exploration of mentoring relationships in the lives of youth in foster care


Ahrens, K.R., DuBois, D.L., Garrison, M., Spencer, R., Richardson, L.P. & Lozano, P. (2011). Qualitative exploration of relationships with important non-parental adults in the lives of youth in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1012-1023.

(summarized by Stella Kanchewa)

Problem: Youth in foster care face an array of challenges that have the potential to negatively affect their transition and adjustment into adulthood, thus there is much interest in resources, such as mentoring, that can aid youth during this period. The current study explored youth’s understanding of their relationships with non-parental adults, and factors that facilitate or hinder the development and maintenance of these relationships.

Methodology: Twenty-three individuals, ages 18 to 25 years old, from four non-profit agencies serving both current and former foster care youth in an urban city in the Northwest part of the country participated in this study. Employing a qualitative approach with semi-structured, in-person interviews, thematic analysis, in which patterns and themes are identified amongst the youth interviews, was used in order to interpret the data.

Results: The majority of youth in the study were female (61%) from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, with an array of foster care experiences (.e.g., one versus multiple placements). All youth reported at least one natural mentoring relationship, including family members and service providers. A significant portion of the youth also reported current/ongoing contact with these non-parental adults.

Youth reported that relationships with non-parental adults contributed to their socioemotional (e.g., skills for healthy relationships), cognitive (e.g., planning and problem-solving), and identity (e.g., self-worth) development.  These relationships also provided youth with emotional support as well as social capital.

Several themes emerged from the data including mentor characteristics and factors, from the youth’s perspective, that facilitated and hindered both the initiation and maintenance of relationships with mentors.

  • Relationship Initiation
    • Barriers: fear of negative outcomes including emotional disappointment and unmet expectations; pressure to bond quickly; too much directive advice; limited cultural and/or demographic background understanding
  • Facilitators: mentors who displayed patience and persistence; genuine affection and authenticity; respect for the youth’s narrative/past experiences; as well as shared characteristics such as interests, gender/cultural background, communication style and foster care knowledge/experience
  • Relationship Maintenance
    • Barriers: Foster care placement changes and moves; loss of contact information; fear of not meeting mentor’s expectations (i.e., not staying on a positive path).
  • Facilitators: genuineness and authenticity; flexibility to changing needs; consistency and accountability; inclusion of activities relevant to youth’s interests; clear expectations about the relationship trajectory; maintenance of regular contact.

Conclusion: This study outlined factors related to foster care youth’s experiences with mentors. Relationships with non-parental adults may provide these youth with an added resource in order to foster positive development, particularly around emotionally vulnerable transition periods. The findings from this study highlight that for this population, initiation and maintenance of the relationship may require high levels of patience, authenticity, adaptability and respect.

The authors note several implications and considerations for future research:

  • Formal inclusion of mentors into foster care transition/termination planning
  • Mentor training with a focus on issues and experiences unique to this population
  • Understanding of factors that may impact the matching process for foster care youth within formal mentoring programs
  • Training for foster care youth focusing on teaching skills for accessing social capital (e.g., relationships with positive adults)
  • Acknowledgement of youth’s changing needs, and periods they may be more/less responsive to relationships with mentors