Research illuminates important factors in informal mentoring relationships

bird-feeder-1673849_1280Meltzer, A., Muir, K., & Craig, L. (2016). Being trusted: The perspectives of trusted adults about engaging with young people. Children and Youth Services Review63, 58-66.


Summarized by Rachel Rubin



As young people move away from home, they often form relationships with trusted adults to help guide them in their newly independent lives. These trusted adults, also known as non-parental adults and natural mentors, are people who young adults believe are reliable, have their best interests in mind, and will protect their wellbeing. Trusted adults might have a formal or professional role with youth (e.g., teacher) but the mentoring role is not formally assigned. Trusted adults have been shown to provide motivational, emotional, and practical support in ways that make important impacts on the lives of young people. That is, youth who have a relationship with a trusted adult are more likely to be progressing in many areas of their lives (e.g., education, work, wellbeing). In addition, a trusted adult fills the developmental needs of young people who want an equitable-feeling relationship with an adult who also offers support and guidance.

Although research has been done on the young adults’ perceptions of these relationships, there is less known about the perspectives of the trusted adults. It is imperative to understand this perspective in this natural mentoring relationship in order to create environments that facilitate these relationships. This paper explores how trusted adults understand and experience their relationships with young adults compared to the youth’s perceptions of these same relationships. In addition, this paper explores the differences in perspective between trusted adults in professional roles versus family/friend roles as well as differences based on the young person’s level of engagement in education or employment.



This paper analyzes interviews from twenty-three trusted adults. These interviews are part of a larger longitudinal study investigating how young people negotiate social and economic engagement. Young people interviewed as part of the larger study (N=103) were asked to nominate a trusted adult to participate in the study. Twenty-three trusted adults participated across the study. The interviews with the trusted adults included conversations about education, work, activities and interests, and the relationships that young people have. The interviews also explored what role the trusted adults play in supporting these aspects of the young people’s lives. The authors used a thematic framework for analysis to both inductively and deductively identify themes.

Of the 103 young people in the study, 43.7% identified as female, 55.3% identified as male, and 0.9% identified as transgender. Young people ranged in age from 12 to 22 years old with the mean age being 16.5 years. In addition, 16% of the young people identified as being of Aboriginal or Toress Straight Islander background and 26.2% spoke a language other than English at home. Of the trusted adult participants, 69.5% identified as female and 30.5% identified as male. Trusted adults ranged in age from 26 to 71. Most trusted adults were Anglo-Australian, eighty percent had finished secondary school, and eighty-five percent were currently employed. 34.7% of trusted adults were extended family members or friends while 13.1% were in a community role (e.g., sports coach, ex-formal mentor) and 52.2% were in a paid professional role (e.g., case manager, teacher).

The analysis explores differences in the relationships based on the different roles of the trusted adults in the youths’ lives as well as differences in relationships based on youths’ level of risk in terms of educational and employment circumstances. Based on young people’s enrollment in school, another training program, employment, and protective measures, 47.8% of young adults were determined to be engaged and not at risk of dropping out of education or work, 8.7% were determined to be previously at risk of disengaging but were no longer, 21.7% were determined to be engaged but at risk of disengaging, and 21.7% were determined to be disengaged.



There was clear and consistent alignment between the young people’s and trusted adults’ perspectives on the relationships. The young people in the study described three key parts of their relationships with trusted adults including trusted adults offering support, encouragement, and role modeling; trusted adults offering practical assistance; and trusted adults using a low-key, direct, and equitable conversation tone. Trusted adults echoed these emphases of the relationships. In regard to offering practical assistance, trusted adults elaborated on the differences in the amount and type offered depending on young people’s level of engagement. That is, trusted adults tended to provide more extensive assistance for young people disengaged or at risk of disengaging. Moreover, in regard to the conversational tone, trusted adults’ interviews also emphasized the intent and awareness of engaging in this type of low-key and direct style. For instance, some trusted adults mentioned that they engaged in type of low-key and equitable tone in order to make conversations seem nonjudgmental and voluntary.

In addition to aligning with young people’s perceptions of the relationship, trusted adults offered nuances of the relationships that the young people had not discussed. These nuances included the struggle of trusted adults sharing support roles with others (e.g., parents), the impermanence of the relationship, and maintaining professional boundaries. Trusted adults discussed that sharing support roles can be difficult and sometimes the difficulty lies in the trusted adult being forced to fill multiple support roles if young people do not have other social support resources. In regard to impermanence, trusted adults in paid professional roles noted that relationships with young people were temporary and that this impermanent nature is often difficult for young people, especially when young people either do not have other supports and/or are at risk of disengaging.  Maintaining professional boundaries was mainly an issue for trusted adults in paid professional roles. Some of these trusted adults only acknowledged their relationships with young people as professional relationships while others emphasized the personal nature of the relationship as well. Some trusted adults noted that professional boundaries become more difficult to maintain when young people do not have other supports.


Implications: Trusted adults’ perspectives aligned with previous research on young people’s perspectives of the relationships. However, trusted adults added an important element in that they also described why they act in certain ways and nuances of the relationships with young people. From this paper, it is clear that these relationships tend to be more complex when trusted adults are in paid professional roles and when young people are disengaged or at risk of disengaging from school or work.

Trusted adults’ emphasis on the impermanence of the relationship as well as the increased difficulty when young people do not have other supports has implications for programming and future research. Due to difficulties in transitioning out of these temporary relationships, it is important for professionals and trusted adults who find themselves in mentoring roles to participate in training on the impermanence of the relationship. The series of training sessions could help raise awareness among trusted adults about the potential difficulties that might arise when relationships must be terminated and how trusted adults can ease transitions for young people. In addition, because trusted adults are already in roles in which they provide support and guidance, it is possible that they may be able to connect young people to other sources of support as well. This connecting would be especially important in cases of impermanent relationships as well as cases in which young people do not have other supports. Future research should investigate this potential for trusted adults to help build young people’s social networks.


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