Professional headshot of Atefeh Kiadarbandsari

Enabling mentors to support mentee cognitive emotion regulation: Q+A with Atefeh Kiadarbandsar

Dr. Atefeh Kiadarbandsari received her PhD from the School of Population Health, University of Auckland and is a research fellow at the University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. Our Assistant Director, Megyn Jasman, sat down with Dr. Kiadarbandsari to speak about her recent study and recommendations for mentors.

Megyn: Your study examines the frequency of cognitive emotion regulation strategies used by mentees during negative life events and how mentors respond to these strategies. What led you to explore the role of mentors in supporting mentees’ cognitive emotion regulation skills during challenging situations?

Atefeh: The idea came from a book which was published by Dr Edmond Bowers and his colleagues named ‘Promoting positive youth development: Lessons from the 4-H Study’ in 2015. In this book, the authors raised a gap in the Positive Youth Development (PYD) field regarding the role of emotion regulation and they hypothesized some probable effects of emotion regulation. For example, Wang and colleagues argued how emotion regulation strategies (e.g., suppression and reappraisal) might be involved in youth positive outcomes. They also mentioned how mentoring relationships could be influential in better emotion regulation skills among youth mentees. However, there are more strategies and adolescence is a period of cognitive development. As there was no empirical study to address this gap, I decided to do a PhD in Population Health and fill the gap with my background in psychology and knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Megyn: The findings show that mentors and mentees reported slightly different rates of skill use. Can you discuss any possible reasons for this discrepancy, and how it might influence the mentor-mentee relationship?

Atefeh: This difference could be explained in many ways but what I can report is that young people are still at a stage of cognitive development (synaptic pruning in their frontal lobe that is responsible for cognitive skills). They can be lost in a sea of emotions that are coming from different situations without distinguishing them (e.g., being sad may be felt as anger) or not being able to label them. So, they may find it difficult to talk about it or be unaware how their emotion (e.g., sadness or shame) is keeping their thoughts busy. This can be a reason why they might be less interested in talking about their shame or repetitive negative thoughts, as a few examples. In such situations, when the mentee is busy with their thoughts, they might be quiet which can impact their relationships with mentors. Simply put, the mentor may feel inadequate and they may only remember more positive and constructive discussions with their mentees. On the other hand, if a mentee tries to share their feelings (especially negative feelings) but they do not receive a supportive answer that they are looking for, they may get detached from the mentor. 

Megyn: The study reveals two overarching themes of mentors supporting mentees’ emotion regulation skills: emotional support and providing new ways of learning. Could you provide some examples of how mentors offer emotional support and teach new cognitive strategies to their mentees?

Atefeh: Life stressors could cause anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, jealousy, sadness, disgust, and envy. When a mentoring relationship is well-established and characterized by trust, mutuality, empathy, and closeness, the mentee may directly share their feelings toward a situation and talk about their emotions such as ‘I’m sad because I had an argument with my best friend’. In such a situation, the mentor can simply provide emotional support by validating and normalizing the mentee’s emotion by telling them that ‘you are right to be sad’ (silence) ‘best friends are an important part of our life’ (silence) ‘but this may happen in any relationship’. Then the mentor can move to provide new learning for the mentee. The best strategies can be teaching positive reappraisal or refocus on planning which are basically learning from a situation and taking steps to fix the situation, respectively. In the case exemplified above, the mentor can ask the mentee ‘How can you fix this?’ (refocus on planning or taking steps to handle the situation). Then the mentor may suggest or share ideas such as talking to the friend or giving a small gift to solve the conflicts. Sometimes, providing emotional support could be sufficient to support the mentee to feel better and they may suggest their own ways to solve the unfavorable situations. 

However, there might be some circumstances that a mentoring relationship is mostly goal-directed and the relationship is not close enough for the mentee to share their concern. The mentee may only mention an undesirable situation without reflecting their emotions. In this context, the mentor may provide teaching ‘refocus on planning’ as an adaptive strategy that can be employed and generalized to many situations. Using metaphors could be a great choice to engage the mentees’ intellectual abilities and to seek a way to set a plan such as:

“The situation you are in seems a bit like this. Imagine that you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold, and you’re given a little bag of tools. You’re told that your job is to run around this field, blindfolded. Unknown to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. So, you start running around and sooner or later you fall into this large hole. You feel around and there are no escape routes you can find. So you reach into your bag and find a shovel. So, you start digging, but pretty soon you notice that you’re not out of the hole — the hole is bigger. So, you try digging faster, or with big scoops. But it is not working. So, what do you think? Digging is a way out of the hole or digging is what makes holes? So maybe it’s better to set a new plan.” 

Megyn: The implications for practice suggest that mentor training should include knowledge and skills related to supporting mentees’ emotion regulation efforts. Could you expand on the importance of incorporating training by a psychologist or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy expert, and how it can enhance the mentors’ ability to respond effectively to their mentees during adverse life events?

Atefeh: There are many occasions that we (adults) pick an attractive or socially acceptable name for our emotions to reach our target, for example, envy converts to being competitive. Therefore, the first step for mentors is learning the emotions (basic and higher-order emotions) and their impacts on thoughts and behaviors. This can be achieved through training and CBT is a great way to understand emotions, their functions, and the ways they impact our thoughts as well as behaviors. CBT links emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a way that can lead to new insight and behavior change. CBT also helps to be non-judgmental by understanding how emotions and cognition shape an individual’s behavior. 

To read the entire study, click here.