Does youth mentoring have a ripple effect on family functioning and well-being? Dr. Gizem Erdem shares new findings

The Chronicle is delighted to highlight an exciting new study led by Dr. Gizem Erdem. PhD, I-LMFT, Associate Professor of Psychology, Koç University in Turkey

Megyn Jasman interviewed Dr. Erdem to learn more about the key points of the study, which showed that mentoring programs benefit parents as well as children.

Q: The study identifies a decrease in parental depression, social anxiety, and hostility/aggression, and greater improvement in family functioning over time in both parents and children. How might a mentoring program’s unique structure and activities contribute to these outcomes? 

There are several different mechanisms through which mentoring programs may contribute to parental mental health. Many mentoring programs include activities designed for parents, such as training sessions, social meetings, and follow-ups. These parent-focused activities provide parents with knowledge, skills, and support that can enhance their mental well-being and family functioning. In addition, mentoring programs may be great sources for social support for parents. Programs often involve regular check-ins and interactions between staff, mentors, and parents, which functions as a support network for the parents.

Those check-ins and interactions can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide reassurance and guidance. Similarly, programs that actively involve parents in the mentoring process can foster a sense of inclusion and shared purpose. Some programs have parental advisory board to engage parents in decision making while others engage parents as allies in the mentoring relationship. Mentoring research has shown that parental engagement and parent support of the match are linked to longer match duration and better outcomes for children, all of which may contribute to improved parental mental health.

Last and not the least, parents may benefit from programs indirectly. As children build relationships with mentors, they may exhibit improved behavior and emotional regulation, which can reduce stress and conflict at home. As such, parents may have improved relationships with their children. Indeed, we have research demonstrating a link between mentoring program participation and improvement of parent-child relationship quality. 

In addition to those mechanisms, I think we also need to acknowledge the context of mentoring programs which inevitably interacts with the program goals, scope, processes, and outcomes. For instance, our study was focused on the BBBS community-based mentoring program in Canada – a country where government assistance programs are more wide-spread and accessible than those in the US (especially during the years our study data were collected). A single parent from an impoverished neighborhood using services through mentoring programs in Canada may have access to other services, benefits, and resources above and beyond their own community. In that case, parents may be already embedded in a system of care and services within which mentoring program is integrated or it may be just something extra parents seek.

For a single and marginalized parent in the US, mentoring programs could be one of the few programs they may get in. Therefore, parents may seek those services for a variety of reasons and motives with a whole range of different expectations from the program and a level of engagement. I wonder how our findings would be if we conducted the same study in the US and controlled for the extent of other services parents are receiving – how does that access interact with their mental health? I think in mentoring research, we are not yet focusing on the idea of ‘choice’ while conceptualizing environmental risk. Are those parents enrolling their children in mentoring programs because that is what they could get their children in? Or, did they have access to many programs, but they particularly chose that mentoring program over others? As Amartya Sen (1999) puts it, poverty, and more broadly social inequality, is about having no freedom to choose – it is not simply having an access (or no access) to a resource, it is also about being informed about the resource and have a say about it.

Parents may be deprived of resources, but they may be also deprived of the freedom to choose which one of those resources they seek for their children – that is a broader definition of social exclusion. Taking this perspective to the youth mentoring programs, were parents in our data (including the ones whose children never received any mentoring) improving over time simply because they had choice and had access to other resources, services, and referrals above and beyond mentoring? I think we need further longitudinal research to assess and measure multidimensional poverty to truly capture environmental risk at a broader level and think about our parental outcomes with that context in mind. 

Q: Given the observed benefits for parents of mentored children, what recommendations would you make for mentoring programs to better support and possibly accelerate benefits for the entire family? 

Our study demonstrates that parents with mentored children reported significant improvements in family functioning over time, as compared to those with non-mentored children. This finding illustrates that parents are not simply collaborators to support and monitor the mentoring relationship, they may be also beneficiaries of that relationship with potential positive impact on family relationships. This finding informs mentoring program practitioners to approach and engage parents in mentoring programs with a different mindset. Our study also has implications for enhanced parental involvement in mentoring programs. For instance, mentoring programs can incorporate more structured and consistent parent-focused activities, such as support groups, parenting workshops, and family events, to create a comprehensive support system for the entire family.

Further, it seems important and much needed to implement regular feedback sessions with parents to understand their needs and experiences, which can be used to tailor the program more effectively to support families. Our study has shown minimal to no effects of mentoring programs parental mental health. It appears that mentoring programs may need to incorporate components specifically aimed at addressing parental mental health, such as access to counseling services, stress management workshops, and resources for dealing with common parenting challenges. Another potential venue to explore further pertains to mentoring programs devoted explicitly to parents. Parent-to-parent mentoring programs match experienced volunteer parents with parents who seek assistance and guidance. In those programs, mentor parents may provide emotional and instrumental support as well as referrals for further services for parents who face similar challenges.

Our study also underscores the utility of assessing parental and family outcomes in more depth. In mentoring program outcome evaluation, parental outcomes are perceived as potential mechanisms of change to promote betterment of mentees. While this approach holds some truth, our study also demonstrates the benefits of considering parental and family outcomes as primary outputs of the program. As such, programs may consider program effectiveness in broader terms. Instead of limiting the program impact to child outcomes, why not think about what other webs of relationships may be influenced by the program. However, our study has also shown that such ripple effects may appear later in the program which would require a long-term evaluation.

For instance, our study followed parents, children, and mentors for up to 30 months, which provided rich data to capture their change as a function of the program. While longitudinal research can be highly costly for programs, service providers may incorporate up to three time points of assessments in their programs if feasible (preferably before the program started, in the middle of the program, and after the program ended). Another option for programs to capture potential ripple effects is to introduce ‘booster’ mentoring sessions or parent check-ins after the program ended. In that way, programs can follow up with the parents to examine indirect effects of the program on parenting and family relationships. 

Programs may collect data on a range of parenting and family relationship related variables. To name a few, family cohesion, control, organization, parent-child relationship quality, parenting stress, parental warmth and responsivity, and parental control could be important variables to explore further. Due to time and budget constraints, programs may pick short, well-validated, and standardized measures for assessment. For instance, in our study we used a 12-item scale to assess family functioning which tapped into overall evaluation of the whole family in terms of closeness, trust, and communication. In addition, the National Mentoring Resource Center provides toolkits for service providers with recommendations for standardized measures, I would highly recommend checking their website for potential measures to use (   

Most mentoring programs conduct exit interviews or feedback sessions as part of their protocol for closure at the end of the program. One feasible approach could be expanding on those interviews and add questions related to parents’ own experiences of and reflections on the program. What was the role of the mentoring program in their family life? How did the program influence their relationship with their child? Thinking back, what were the contributions of the program to their parenting and overall family relationships, if any? What aspects of the program helped them as a parent and what aspects were missing? Such qualitative feedback from the parents about their own experiences on the program and potential benefits of it for their parenting and family relationships can also capture the nuanced effects of the mentoring program on family dynamics.

Q: Considering the study’s limitations related to dropout rates and missing data, how do you suggest future research should address these challenges to ensure a more representative sample of participants?

One major limitation of our study relates to the missing data due to attrition and dropout. While this is a common problem in survey research with longitudinal designs, it inevitably biases our findings towards overrepresentation of well-functioning parents and children in the data. It is possible that families who were less functioning or those who did not benefit from the program already dropped out of the program and/or the assessment interviews. From a methodological standpoint, there are several ways to address those issues in future research. One novel strategy is to employ planned missingness (Little & Rhemtulla, 2013), a survey design strategy where a pre-determined percentage of questions are intentionally omitted for subsets of respondents.

In that way, researchers do not ask every question to every respondent. Instead, they allocate pre-determined percentage of questions across different respondents and impute the planned missing items. This strategy is especially helpful in large surveys to reduce participant burden and fatigue by decreasing the amount of time each respondent commits to the survey. It improves quality of the data and increases retention at follow up assessments. There are different techniques of planned missingness with most common ones being matrix sampling (different subsets of questions are given to different groups of respondents) and item sampling (specific items being administered to randomly selected subsets of respondents). Planned missingness requires careful consideration at the research design stage including balancing coverage of scales across all participants, ensuring statistical power, and assigning items to be missing at random or missing completely at random. I believe this would be an ‘ideal’ solution to the problem but planned missingness is a quite complex process to design, it would be costly in terms of time, budget, and efficiency of the research team. It is a strategy that is still uncommon in developmental research.   

Some strategies that are more procedural and require less planning are more commonly used. One option is to implement research protocols and procedures for the data collection process to prevent potential drop out and missing data issues. In the context of mentoring programs, we know that some youth wait longer to get matched than others and parents may be frustrated and disappointed with the matching process. It is not surprising that those parents are more likely to drop out of the program and the effectiveness study. Retention strategies such as regular check-ins, encouragement for parental involvement in the social activities of the program, and incentives for continued participation can be helpful for those parents while they wait for the match. In addition, addressing barriers to participating in and completing follow-up assessment interviews is important. Researchers should provide resources and offer flexible assessment schedules and venues that accommodate parents’ availability to that end.

Further, I advocate for researching the research process. That is, researchers can document the research process in detail with an established set of questions, such as the characteristics of the dropouts, their motives, and reasons. Following the data collection, it is imperative to run statistical analysis and compare parents and families who terminated early with those who completed the program. Potential differences related to ethnicity/race, social class, gender, or geographic location can inform future research to determine which subgroups could be harder to retain in the study. Such analysis will help us to question availability and access of our research project for the participants and explore strategies to improve our inclusivity in future studies. 

Note (References in the text):

Little, T. D., & Rhemtulla, M. (2013). Planned missing data designs for developmental researchers. Child Development Perspectives7(4), 199-204.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. Anchor Books 

Link to Article.