Finding a balance: The benefits of integrating youth- and goal-focused approaches in youth mentorships

Werntz, A., Poon, C. Y. S., & Rhodes, J. E. (2023). Striking the balance: The relative benefits of goal- and youth-focused approaches to youth mentoring relationships. Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Evidence suggests that targeted, goal-focused mentoring approaches are more effective than non-specific mentoring approaches in promoting a variety of youth outcomes (e.g., mental health, behavioral, and academic)
  • However, there still needs to be a balance between setting targeted goals and accounting for youths’ points of view.
  • Despite the growing interest in developing balanced mentoring strategies, there is still a lack of studies that explore how they affect relationship quality.
    • Additionally, most existing research assesses the balance from mentors’ perspectives and refers to explicitly stated program goals.
  • This study evaluated youths’ views on their mentors’ strategies, youth mental health outcomes, and youths’ experiences with conflict and closeness.
  • Utilizing goal-focused approaches (e.g., mentors assisting their mentees with setting and achieving goals) and youth-focused approaches (e.g., mentors learning about their mentees’ activity preferences) positively correlate with mentee-perceived relational closeness and less tense mentor-mentee relations.
  • However, results also show that goal-focused approaches correlate with more tense relationships, which can, in turn, lead to lower-quality outcomes (e.g., more depressive symptoms and more conduct issues).
  • Mentoring programs that integrate youth- and goal-focused approaches can lower youth mental health symptoms.
  • Mentoring programs need to assist mentoring pairs with setting mutual, feasible goals that benefit the mentees.
  • It’s also imperative for mentoring programs to be clear with their purpose. If participating mentees and mentors have similar expectations on setting goals and addressing them together, it can help reduce relational tensions and promote positive mental health outcomes.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Targeted, goal-focused approaches to mentoring can improve behavioral and mental health outcomes than more recreational, non-specific approaches. However, a focus on goals needs to be balanced with openness to including mentees’ preferences. This study builds on prior work by exploring the benefits of goal- and youth-focused approaches to mentoring relationships from the youth mentee’s perspective, including their associations with relationship measures (closeness and tension) and mental health outcomes (i.e., conduct problems, emotional symptoms, and depressive symptoms). This study was a secondary analysis of data from 2165 youth participating in thirty nationally representative mentoring programs in the United States. On average, youth were 12.3-years-old (SD = 1.43, range = 9–16) and the majority were female (55%); 36.7% were Black/African American, 22.4% were White, and 23.5% were Latino/Hispanic. Path analyses revealed 1) youth and goal-focused approaches were positively associated with closeness, 2) youth-focused approaches were negatively associated with tension, 3) goal-focused approaches were positively associated with tension. At follow-up, a stronger mentoring relationship (less tension and greater closeness) was related to positive youth outcomes. As the field of mentoring corrects for an overemphasis on intuitive approaches and moves towards more targeted directions, it should resist veering too far from what sets the field apart from skills-training models: the role of a caring relationship.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Prior work suggests that a balance of goal-directed activities and a supportive, caring relationship is critical for fostering positive outcomes for youth participating in mentoring programs (Cavell & Elledge, 2013). This balance of approaches to mentoring has been examined from the perspective of mentors (Lyons et al., 2019) and from the explicitly stated goals of the programs (Christensen et al., 2020), however the youth mentee’s perspective was missing. This study addressed this gap by examining youth perspectives on their mentors’ approaches, youth’s experiences of closeness and conflict, and specific mental health outcomes. Together, the results indicate that focusing on both goals and the youth’s preferences leads to youth perceiving a closer relationship with their mentor. However, focusing on goals also relates to tension in the relationship, which relates to poorer outcomes (conduct and depressive symptoms).

The large, nationally representative sample permitted model comparisons and greater generalizability than previous studies. As predicted, mentee perceptions of both youth-focused approaches (e.g., mentor listens to youth’s preferences in activities) and goal-focused approaches (e.g., mentor helps the youth set and reach goals) contributed significantly to the path model. In line with hypotheses, higher youth-centered approaches were associated with a stronger relationship and less relational tension, and higher goal-focused approaches were associated with a stronger relationship and higher relational tension. Further, more relational tension was associated with greater reported conduct problems and depressive symptoms in mentees at follow up, and higher perceived mentoring closeness was associated with lower depressive and emotional symptoms in mentees at follow up. The findings highlight the importance of incorporating both goal-focused and youth-oriented behaviors in formal mentoring relationships serving adolescents. This is consistent with recent findings where a balance of relational talk, leisure-activities (i.e. games, creative), and goal-focused activities (i.e. academic, social issues) were associated with better youth outcomes (Kanchewa et al., 2021). Notably, this dual approach is also consistent with the proposition that targeted-approach mentoring should remain as a relational intervention, and that mentors should be aware of mentor-mentee alliance and relational quality while working on skills and goals with their mentees (Cavell & Elledge, 2013).

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