Caregiver-initiated mentoring: Developing a working model to mitigate social isolation

Weiler, L. M., Scafe, M., Spencer, R., & Cavell, T. A. (2020). Caregiver-initiated mentoring: Developing a working model to mitigate social isolation. Clinical Social Work Journal, 48(1), 6-17.

Summarized by Kirsten Christensen

Notes of Interest:

  • Natural mentors can be important resources for youth living in isolation.
  • This study explores a workshop developed to promote parent’s capacity to connect their youth with caring adults.
  • Key themes from interviews with participants of the workshop included 1) seeing the value of actively seeking informal mentors, 2) recognizing and managing potential risks, and 3) identifying and making requests od potential informal mentors.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Contemporary society is characterized by social isolation, polarization, and increased mobility. For many families, naturally occurring support systems are changing and possibly fading. When parents face child-rearing without adequate support networks, they experience high parenting stress, diminished health, and greater risk of maltreating their children. Children in socially-isolated families are prone to a range of social, emotional, and academic difficulties. Formal mentoring programs can help by connecting children with supportive nonparental adults, but the demand for mentoring outpaces program capacity, and formal mentoring programs are seldom designed to partner with parents. Additional, resourceful approaches are needed. In this study, we explored the potential for developing an approach that fosters parents’ capacity to be gatekeepers to their children’s adult support networks. We used a daylong collaborative workshop to partner with six parents from a low-income housing service and five youth-serving professionals from the community. Participants generated potential strategies by which parents can cultivate informal mentoring relationships and identified specific ideas for helping parents (a) see the value of actively seeking informal mentors, (b) recognize and manage potential risks, and (c) identify and make requests of potential informal mentors. Findings from our workshop were used to develop a Caregiver-Initiated Mentoring approach that could be utilized by clinical social workers and other helping professionals. The approach integrates our findings with empirical research from youth mentoring and conceptual underpinnings from parent help-seeking models, the Transtheoretical Model of Change, and Motivational Interviewing.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The value of CG-IM for clinical social workers, at this juncture, is that if offers a useful heuristic for generating possible solutions to the often complex and chronic issue of social isolation in children and families. Of course, the particular modality, method, and means of implementing CG-IM will vary based on population, setting, or context. For instance, clinicians could use a CG-IM frame to counter the negative effects of social isolation on children’s functioning following their discharge from successful therapy. Clinicians would need to tailor the approach to fit the specific needs and circumstances of the family while also helping caregivers identify and resolve unstated ambivalence, recognize and manage potential risks, and discern who in their network might safely fill the role of supportive mentor. Useful here are techniques common to therapeutic practice, such as eco-mapping or genograms that can help identify nonparental adults who might be a supportive presence for children and also pose little risk.

A different application of the CG-IM framework is to recognize its value more generally to parents who are socially isolated and whose children are cut off from supportive relationships. One application might involve trusted community representatives (e.g., school staff, clergy, civic leaders) trained by social workers delivering the message of CG-IM to parents at a school or in a housing complex. This approach reflects an alternative, strength-based way to help parents promote their children’s social and emotional development. This idea is very much in accord with the “Casual Approach” generated by one of our workshop groups. In fact, we have begun efforts to develop a version of CG-IM that takes this more universal (i.e., less intensive) approach to service delivery (i.e., “Making Connections”). We see it as a brief (2-h) workshop focusing on (a) potential benefits and risks of informal relationships with supportive adults, (b) strategies for monitoring and reducing children’s risk from exploitative adult relationships, (c) strategies and tips for finding supportive adults, and (d) options for how to make initial requests that could lead to supportive adult connections. We anticipate each of these topics would likely engender a mix of hope and hesitancy for parents, which would then require time for parents to recognize and begin to resolve their own ambivalence, ideally with assistance from workshop leaders trained in the spirit and skills of MI. The value of this type of workshop would hinge on how well it fits the conditions that give rise to parent help seeking. As such, clinicians/trainers would be wise to focus on settings and times that reflect when parents are most likely to need and access supportive services. Examples include caregivers who recently moved into the community, refugee families, and those parents who are newly separated or divorced.


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