New study explores mentoring adolescent girls in the context of maternal relationship difficulties

Williamson, S., Deutsch, N. L., & Lawrence, E. C. (2020). A qualitative exploration of mentoring relationship development for girls experiencing maternal relationship difficulties. Children and Youth Services Review, 119, 105577.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Developing close relationships with mentees can be challenging, especially for adolescent mentees who are referred to mentoring programs. 
  • Findings of a previous study, which focused on a mentoring program that connected middle school girls with college women, showed that higher-quality maternal trust/communication and higher-level maternal alienation correlated with higher quality mentoring relationships for young, adolescent girls.
  • This study analyzed post-program interviews for a sub-sample of the five mentees with the lowest and highest maternal communication/trust and maternal alienation scores, in addition to their mentors, in order to better understand how relationship issues affect mentoring relationship development.
  • Findings indicate that for mentees experiencing maternal communication and trust issues, first impressions and trust are very important to relationship development.
  • Mentors who have mentees who experience high levels of maternal alienation have an easier time helping their mentees approach difficult conversations with their mothers.
  • Findings highlight the impact of maternal relationship issues on mentoring relationship development. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Results of a prior study of 205 middle school girls in the Young Women Leaders Program, a mentoring program that pairs middle school girls with college women, revealed that better quality maternal communication/trust as well as higher levels of maternal alienation were associated with stronger mentoring relationship quality for early adolescent girls. These results suggest that for early adolescent girls there is a distinction between foundational maternal relationship challenges and relationship challenges that are developmentally situated. Based on these results, the current study examines post-program interviews for a sub-sample of the five mentees with the highest and lowest scores for maternal communication/trust and maternal alienation as well as their mentors to gain an understanding of how relationship issues impact mentoring relationship development. Results indicate that for girls experiencing maternal communication and trust issues, first impressions and trust are very important to relationship development. Additionally, mentors of girls with communication and trust issues tended to have difficulty developing a relationship with their mentees’ families. For girls experiencing maternal alienation, mentors commonly served as a bridge between mentees and their mothers and helped mentees navigate difficult conversations with their mothers. Additionally, mentors in this group developed strong relationships with their mentees’ families. Findings contribute to the literature on mentoring relationship development and help to inform programs regarding training for mentors.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Overall, results revealed that mentees who started the program with different levels and types of relationship difficulties with their mothers discussed their mentoring relationships differently. This was also true for their mentors. Mentees who were more alienated from their mothers commonly received support from their mentors regarding their relationships with their mothers. Mentors in this group also took time to develop relationships with their mentees’ families. In addition, mentors approached differences between themselves and their mentees as opportunities to learn more about their mentees and develop stronger relationships. On the other hand, mentors and mentees in the less alienated group discussed more barriers to relationship development such as lack of communication, negative relationships between mentors and mentees’ families, and a focus on differences as an obstacle to relationship development. For girls experiencing trust and communication issues with their mothers, results revealed that developing trust and making a positive first impression were very important for the mentoring relationship. In addition, for girls in this group it was more difficult for mentors to develop a positive relationship with their mentees’ families. These results reflect the idea that early relational experiences, including attachment experiences, shape our approach to later relationships (Meeus et al., 2002, Stams et al., 2002), and support prior literature suggesting that such experiences may also therefore shape the development of youth’s relationships with mentors (Rhodes et al., 1994, Keller and Blakeslee, 2014). It also reflects recent discussion in the mentoring literature of the importance of thinking about mentees’ families as part of the system of mentoring (Keller et al., 2018, Spencer and Basualdo-Delmonico, 2014).

Bowlby’s attachment theory suggests that children develop an internal working model of self and others, which informs their expectations about future relationships (1988). Early adolescent girls who are experiencing challenges in their maternal relationships may have more difficulty with subsequent relationship development with peers and others (Meeus et al., 2002, Stams et al., 2002). However, a prior study found that there may be nuanced but important differences in the types of maternal relationship challenges that are salient for early adolescent girls in regards to mentoring relationship development (Williamson et al., 2019). Specifically, Williamson and colleagues suggest that maternal trust and communication difficulties may be indicative of foundational relationship issues in the maternal relationship (2019). On the other hand, alienation or disconnection from mothers may be a relationship issue that is developmentally situated for early adolescent girls who are struggling with the task of testing their independence from their mothers (Williamson et al., 2019). The current study explored how these different types of maternal relationship issues impact the development of the mentoring relationship by looking at interviews of mentees with and without maternal relationship difficulties along with interviews of their mentors. Qualitative analysis seems to support this distinction between foundational and developmental maternal relationship issues. Issues with maternal trust and communication appear to spill over into the mentoring relationship. Mentees dealing with these issues emphasized trust in their relationships and seemed to be more wary of developing relationships at first, which was demonstrated through their focus on initial impressions. In contrast, mentees with alienation difficulties did not seem to have issues developing relationships with their mentors. Rather, they were able to capitalize on their mentors as resources to help them in their relationships with their mothers, supporting the concept that alienation is related to a stage rather than a foundational problem. One way in which this may be emerging is that mentees who are experiencing higher levels of alienation from their mothers tend to talk with their mentors more about their maternal relationships, which may be more contentious during this stage. This perhaps leads to more active involvement from the mentor in the mentee-mother relationship. In contrast, girls who are experiencing trust and communication issues with their mothers seem to have less interest in discussing their maternal relationships, perhaps as a result of more long-term challenges that the mentee has become accustomed to or which impact her generalized tendency to trust others.

Overall, for girls who are experiencing alienation from their mothers, mentors supporting their mentees through difficulties in their maternal relationships and developing positive connections with their mentees’ families contributed to the development of satisfying mentoring relationships. For girls experiencing trust and communication issues in their maternal relationships, results suggest that initial impressions and developing trust are very important elements of mentoring relationship development. Relationship difficulties between mentors and mentees’ families were commonly discussed as a barrier to relationship development in both groups.

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