In his excellent new book, “Helping Children Succeed,” author Paul Tough notes that a caring connection is a prerequisite for learning. Teachers who create warm, empathic classroom environments can, as David Brooks, recently noted in his discussion of the book, “guide [students] back toward calmness,…teachers who motivate their students to show up every day and throw themselves into school life may not even realize how good they are, because emotional engagement is not something we measure and stress.” Brooks argues for a a more “caring culture so students feel loved while they improve; a culture of belonging, so fragile students feel their work has value. … Many teachers sense that students are more emotionally vulnerable today. Social policy has to find a hundred ways to nurture loving relationships. Today we have to fortify the heart if we’re going to educate the mind.”
This brings us to mentoring, and the vital role that both natural mentors (e.g., caring teachers, coaches) and formal mentors (i.e., assigned through a program) can play in fortifying the heart of children who may be sensitive to rejection. We’ve all met rejection sensitive kids (and adults)—they seem prickly and overly sensitive to even the smallest of perceived slights. Rejection sensitive people may have had unreliable, neglectful, and insensitive relationships with their parents or others. As a defensive strategy, they often become hypersensitive, selectively attending to and guarding against signs of difficulty and rejection so they can head them off at the pass. Columbia University psychology professor, Geraldine Downey, defines rejection sensitivity as a “…pattern of defensively expecting, readily perceiving and overreacting to rejection…” (Downey, LeBolt, Rincon, & Freitas,, 1998, pp.1076). It has been associated with maladjustment across a variety of domains, including social, emotional, behavioral and school.
While some rejection sensitive youth may react with hostility others become overly accommodating to avoid situations that could lead to confrontation and loss of relationship. In fact, in one of the few studies exploring rejection sensitivity in mentoring relationships, Grossman, Chan, Schwartz, & Rhodes (2011) found that youth higher in rejection sensitivity were less likely than youth with lower rejection sensitivity to be in relationships that terminated prematurely. As we reasoned, mentors may have sensed the youth’s vulnerability, or that mentees were overly accommodating to avoid problems. Less is known, however, about whether mentors can actually reduce rejection sensitivity. Research and theory suggest that enduring supportive mentoring relationships may help rejection sensitive youth gain confidence and trust in relationships. And mentoring may provide a perfect context for high rejection sensitive youth to feel accepted and supported. By being thoughtful, caring and consistent, mentors can challenge views that youth may hold of adults as untrustworthy and rejecting. Moreover, by acting as a sounding board and providing a model for interpretation of perceived slights and effective communication, mentors can help adolescents better understand, more clearly express, and more effectively regulate both their positive and their negative emotions. In this way, a mentoring relationship can become a “corrective experience” for youth who have experienced unsatisfactory relationships with parents or other caregivers. Positive experiences are thought to then generalize, enabling youth to interact with others more effectively.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I drew on data from a large-scale, national evaluation of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) to explore whether mentoring can lead to actual reductions in rejection sensitivity (Kanchewa, Yovienne, Schwartz, Herrera, & Rhodes, in press). The results were encouraging–they suggested that trusting mentoring relationships led to reductions in youth’s rejection sensitivity over time. Such reductions, in turn, were associated with higher levels of assertiveness with peers and more prosocial behavior, as well as improvements in youth’s relationships with their teachers. The findings suggest that previous associations between mentoring and improved relationships might be accounted for, at least in part, by reductions in rejection sensitivity.
These results have implications for mentoring practice. First, it should be noted that a relatively large proportion of youth in this study presented with high levels of rejection sensitivity. As we noted, “Program staff and mentors should be made aware of the behavioral risks and challenges posed by such youth. For example, youth higher in rejection sensitivity may be more likely to interpret ambiguous gestures, such as canceled or missed meetings or even their mentor being distracted during a meeting, as clear signs of rejection from their mentor. By addressing such issues in mentor training, programs may be able to decrease the likelihood that these vulnerable youth will feel rejected by mentors and increase the likelihood of forming a trusting relationship and, thus, reaping beneficial effects. More generally, these findings suggest the importance of providing mentors with training around relationship building.” Evidence-based training, such as Mentoring Central, which delves into issues of trust and empathy, may be particularly helpful in this regard.