How Natural Mentoring Impacts Unaccompanied Immigrant Youths Leaving Residential Care

Reference: Alarcón, X., & Mirković, B. (2023). “Those bridges that help you get there”: How natural mentors improve social support and social capital of unaccompanied immigrant youths leaving residential care. Residential Treatment For Children & Youth.

Summarized By: Ariel Ervin

About the Study

In Catalonia, unaccompanied immigrant youth live in reception centers until they turn eighteen. Once they come of age, they can undergo a selection process to receive additional support from a youth worker via a housing program. However, although these youth workers play a significant role in promoting educational, career, & personal development to foster youth autonomy, Catalan transition programs primarily focus on providing instrumental support and don’t account for the impact supportive adults have on youths’ transition out of care. This qualitative study explores how natural mentors can fulfill career-related and psychosocial functions in the development and transition of unaccompanied youth leaving care. It also examines the facilitators and obstacles of natural mentoring relationships. Special attention is paid to the experiences of two young people, Antonio (twenty years old and from Columbia) and Youssef (eighteen years old and from Morocco).

Key Findings:

  • Natural mentoring relationships are uncommon for unaccompanied immigrant youth in Catalonia.
    • Only five out of twenty study participants had a natural mentor, and two of the five remaining participants (Antonio and Youssef) provided substantial information partially because of their language skills.
  • Unaccompanied immigrant youth have considerable emotional needs due to the environmental issues (e.g., language barriers, scarce institutional support during their transition to adulthood, & legal status) they face upon settlement. Close, trusting relationships can help young people cope with negative emotions & hardships and encourage mentees to open up.
  • Natural mentors provided vital emotional and advice support by offering guidance in navigating challenges, providing a listening ear, and sharing personal experiences of coping with hardships.
    • Antonio talked about how his youth worker, Nieves, from his assisted flat, provided continuous emotional support and gave him space to discuss personal issues with them. Other participants (including Youssef) discussed how they lost contact with their care professionals over time due to high turnover of in-care staff and placement disruptions.
    • Youssef highlighted how a teacher, Inés, from his educational center, went above and beyond her role to be there for him. They encouraged him to discuss problems he didn’t feel comfortable discussing with his family. Other interviewed unaccompanied immigrant youth had teachers who primarily focused on addressing formal issues.
  • Natural mentors had an influential role in shaping the educational pathways of unaccompanied immigrant youth. Natural mentoring allows participants to develop concrete ideas about their futures. They served as a bridge to the new environment and promoted social capital (for example, Nieves supported Antonio’s interests in computer science by introducing him to a programming boot camp) and reinforced findings about the correlation between having a natural mentor and academic & vocational achievement.

Implications for Mentoring: 

The findings from this study align with existing studies about natural mentorships and provide some insights into how natural mentorships specifically affect unaccompanied immigrant youth in Catalonia. While it underscores the pivotal role close, ongoing natural mentorships have in building social capital and addressing the needs of youth, it also highlights the barriers (e.g., the lack of presence of natural mentorships, housing placement disruptions, and high turnover in staff) youth face in accessing natural mentorships. There are several recommendations for mentoring practitioners who work with unaccompanied immigrant youth. Promoting close, informal, and personalized spaces to discuss personal subjects is a significant facilitator in fostering trusting bonds. Being actively engaged in these relationships is essential to meeting youth’s needs and helps them make decisions. Having the capacity to connect youth to relevant resources is another facilitator – this is particularly relevant for educators who primarily offer instrumental support and provide standardized responses to educational needs. Institutions can rectify this by providing training on balancing professional & personal approaches and how to interact with this population in a culturally sensitive manner. Similarly, formal mentoring programs are an alternative approach to serving this population since they can provide a targeted infrastructure for working with unaccompanied immigrant youth. Future studies need to explore how and why youth depend on specific individuals for planning their futures and how services can assist others who do not pursue these relationships and resources.

To read the full study, click here.