Au Revoir: Considerations for ending mentoring relationships

Editor’s note: We stumbled onto this thoughtful article and immediately saw the implications for mentoring. In fact, we were so impressed that we have invited the author, Karen Zilberstein, M.S.W., L.I.C.S.W. Adjunct Associate Professor at Smith College, to be an expert speaker at the inaugural Short Course @ UMB on mentoring foster care youth. Karen is the clinical director of the new Northampton chapter of A Home Within, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco that trains therapists to specialize in helping foster children and then connects them with patients who have been in the foster care system. The therapists volunteer their time and help anyone who has ever been a foster child. 

Screen-Shot-2013-09-27-at-1.24.55-PMClinical Social Work Journal, 36, 301-311.


Traditional views of psychotherapy support the idea that the termination of a therapeutic relationship is beneficial in that it allows the client to work through difficulties surrounding separation and loss; this approach views endings as inevitable and that such feelings should be worked through with the goal of eventually being resolved. More recently, however, the research on attachment, loss, and grieving suggest that termination should be approached differently; accordingly, “termination considerations should be made not just  on the basis of symptom resolution and developmental progress, but also according to the client’s relationship or attachment to the therapist, the other types of attachments in the client’s life and the client’s history of previous losses.” Thus, this paper examines the more nuanced techniques that take into account these factors for therapists to use when ending treatment with both children and adults.

A new way to look at termination:

  • Returning to therapy post-termination used to be seen as a sign that the therapeutic work was incomplete, however, 2/3 of psychoanalytic clients contact their therapist within 3 years (Craige, 2002).
  •  mourning the loss of a therapeutic relationship can be a very painful task, especially for those with a history of painful losses (Golland, 1997; Hill, 2005; Levinson, 1977).
  • Termination is more likely to be experienced as loss or rejection (anger, rage, anxiety, mourning, and abandonment) when they feel they cannot return or make contact
  • Being less rigid and allowing for check-ins after termination can help
  •  Research shows that children grow within attachment relationships, not by leaving them (Shapiro, 1995)
  • It’s also important to note that some clients have positive terminations as they experience feelings of pride, accomplishment and self-respect upon termination of therapy (Baum, 2005; Hill, 2005;  Wachtel, 2002) 


  •  When a child has an emotionally available attachment figure (usually a parent/guardian), this can act as a “secure base” from which the child can safely explore both his internal and external world
  •  When a child has an emotionally unavailable, inconsistent, or intrusive caregiver, they tend to develop an insecure attachment in which they either avoid attachment experiences all together or constantly seek them out (Ainsworth, et al. 1978).
  • Thus, making attachment history an important consideration when the therapist may be viewed as an attachment figure for the child
  • Children’s reactions to separation in many contexts should be considered i.e.,) therapy, school, vacations
  •  “One loss often begets another” – the loss of a parent may also be accompanied by a move, change in routine, decreased availability of the remaining parent


  •  Whenever possible, endings should be tapered and focus not just on loss but also accomplishments (Baum, 2005; Siebold, 2004; Wachtel, 2002)
  • Should characterize the end of therapy as a transition rather than a loss (Baum, 2005)
  •  Given that attachment relationships remain important throughout life, the developmental goal should be interdependency not autonomy


Overall, this paper emphasizes the importance of how an individual understands attachment and loss and how that is necessary to consider when terminating a therapeutic relationship. This view goes against more traditional approaches that feel an individual needs to learn how to “deal” with their loss or separation.  By utilizing an attachment perspective a therapist is able to better conceptualize the type of relationship and subsequent termination that will be best for the client (Holmes, 1997; Shilkret, 2005; Simpson & Rholes, 1998).

Implications for mentoring:

This paper has many implications for the field of mentoring, specifically in regard to the termination of mentor-mentee relationships. By incorporating some of the aforementioned techniques that therapist use (i.e., a gradual tapering of the relationship, recognizing accomplishments, ability to check-in with mentor after termination, and the consideration of past attachment relationships) the mentor should be able to help make the ending of a mentoring relationship feel like less of a loss and more of an accomplishment. These considerations may be particularly important for populations of vulnerable youth who are generally targeted by mentoring programs, as they have an increased likelihood of an insecure attachment history and difficulty with loss and separation.