A conversation with Dr. Belle Liang: The intersection of positive female youth development and mentoring

dr-belle-liangWritten by Sam Burton

Dr. Belle Liang is an Associate Professor in the Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology Department at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. Dr. Liang is a member of the Research and Policy Council of MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership and Advisory Board of the National Cadre of Mentoring Researchers. As a national expert in youth mentoring and for excellence in bringing an innovative, strength-based, developmental, and preventive approach to youth advocacy work, Dr. Liang weighed in on a few questions around positive youth development and mentoring for our readers.


Chronicle (C): What made you interested in studying positive youth development and mentoring relationships?

Dr. Liang (L): So much that’s been written about youth in research and the popular press would lead you to believe that youth is an awful, dangerous, depressing time. I appreciated that the positive youth development (PYD) field rejects these popular conceptualizations of youth as “fundamentally flawed” and recognizes that even the most disadvantaged youths have resiliencies to call upon, including the ability to ignite social change and improve society.  Indeed, throughout history, youth have carried the spark that keeps society moving forward.  Mentors play an important role in empowering youth to reach their personal potential and realize their roles in society.


C: It seems that a major focus of your research has been female youth development. What makes young girls at increased risk for mental health disorders and psychological distress, when compared to their male peers? Do you have any recommendations of practices that could better support girls as they move through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood?

L: Many of these problems may be related to struggles with self-acceptance and self-esteem among adolescent girls, despite the fact that this population of students tends to outperform their peers. Indeed, reports of adolescent girls’ struggles come at a time in history when they are experiencing unprecedented opportunities and success—compared to boys, they are more likely to aspire to higher educational goals, take advanced placement courses, become valedictorians, and enroll in college immediately after high school.  Sadly, these opportunities come at a price—unrealistic expectations from society that girls be more ambitious, smart, caring, fit, and accomplished than their peers. Not only so, in upwardly mobile communities, the pathway to and definition of success is not only narrowly defined, it is extrinsically defined: adolescent girls are pressured to “be all things to all people.” As they compete to meet these extreme expectations, these youth have reported overwhelming achievement pressures, perfectionistic strivings, and fears of failure. These heightened performance expectations come at a critical time in development, when adolescents are especially attuned to the opinions and expectations and are actively forging their identities. Adolescents who have trouble tuning into self-initiated and authentic goals and values tend to demonstrate less stable identities, lower self-esteem, and greater psychological distress.

Certain types of mentoring relationships and practices can help defend against unhealthy influences in girls’ lives. Specifically, “growth-fostering” mentoring relationships (i.e., those characterized by mutual empathy, engagement, authenticity, and empowerment) promote a “sense of self” and a sense of purpose.  In contrast with the threats to self-esteem that come with striving after extrinsic goals, growth-fostering mentoring relationships can help youth to engage in purposeful activities, which in turn lead to healthy self-esteem. Mentors may serve as important sources of acceptance, support, and empathy—pre-requisites to youth becoming open to shifting focus from performance for the sake of proving oneself, to an emphasis on purpose that is personally meaningful and beneficial to others.


C: In what ways do you apply a social justice perspective to the work that you do?

L: I am interested in raising awareness and improving the lives of youth from diverse backgrounds. It is my intention to bolster research on youth populations that have been traditionally thought of as underprivileged, as well as those who have erroneously been considered problem-free due to certain privileges (e.g., Asian-Americans and adolescent girls from affluent communities).


C: In the age of the Internet and new technologies, how is mentoring affected? What are the potential benefits and difficulties associated with the intersection of mentoring and technology?

L: Today, youth and mentors can connect electronically in all manner of ways (e.g., text, message, snapchat) throughout the day that bring them into closer, more informal relationships over time.  In addition to increasing accessibility, some youth (and adults) also feel more at ease talking about feelings and personal information through social media rather than face-to-face. The downside of social media is that it comes with privacy and safety risks. Mentors and youth might struggle with “over-sharing” and boundary crossings.  For example as Facebook friends, mentors and mentees may suddenly be privy to much more information than is typically within the purview of a mentor-mentee relationship.  So, a mentor might see things on a mentee’s profile that raises ethical concerns, such as pictures of their mentee engaging in risky behavior. And a mentee might see pictures of their mentor’s personal life that may also affect them in unexpected ways.


C: What is the most interesting or surprising aspect of positive youth development and/or mentoring that you have learned about from your research?

L: One of my most interesting findings is that youth with purpose (a personally meaningful future aspiration that is intended to contribute to the world beyond the self) are willing to go through all kinds of hardship to achieve their aspiration, and they are the most resilient in the face of various school stressors.


C: What directions would you like to see your research, and the research in the field, move toward in the future?

L: My research will continue to focus on two fundamental and related questions: “What underlying qualities of human relationships are beneficial, and for whom?” and “What occurs in relationships that cultivate youth purpose