Important new study highlights role of mentoring in reducing abuse survivors’ risk for suicide

By Jean Rhodes

Relatively little is known about the role of natural mentors – caring, nonparent adults – in the lives of childhood abuse survivors.  In a recent study, my colleagues and I drew from a large, longitudinal, nationally representative sample (Add Health)  (N=12,270) and found that nearly a third of the young adult respondents reported having been exposed to childhood physical abuse (28.82%) and 4.86% reported exposure to childhood sexual abuse. Sadly, exposure to childhood abuse was associated with a range of negative outcomes during adulthood, including antisocial behavior, physical health limitations, and suicidality. Survivors of childhood physical abuse were more likely to report having a natural mentor, but their mentoring relationships tended to be characterized by lower interpersonal closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact. The simple presence of a natural mentor did not buffer the negative impact of trauma on adult outcomes. Importantly, however, longer mentoring relationships during adolescence significantly reduced the association between both physical and sexual abuse during childhood and suicidality during adulthood.

Excerpted from Weber, E., Hagler M., Schwartz, S., Paras, M. & Rhodes (in press). Natural Mentoring Relationships among Survivors of Caregiver Childhood Abuse: Findings from the Add Health Study. Annals of the New York Academy of Science.

“Childhood abuse has been linked to a number of difficulties with interpersonal relationships as well as long-term adverse developmental outcomes, such as increased risk for neurological abnormalities, immunological alterations, difficulties with interpersonal relationships, emotional dysregulation, substance abuse, and poor impulse control. These problems, which may begin early in life, often persist into adulthood, resulting in long-term mental and physical health difficulties5,6.

nNaturally occurring mentoring relationships have not been thoroughly examined among survivors of childhood abuse, and the prevalence and impact of these relationships is not well understood. Some studies have shown that informal mentoring relationships are prevalent among youth in the foster care system, a group with elevated rates of trauma exposure. In these studies, rates at which youth in foster care report having an informal mentor range from 47 to 72%, which are lower than those found in the general population32–34. Compared to non-mentored counterparts, foster care youth with a mentor reported better overall health, less suicidal ideation, lower likelihood of having a sexually transmitted infection, and lower rates of violent behavior35. Although these studies are informative, not all youth in foster care have experienced childhood abuse, and not all victims of childhood abuse enter foster care.

Insights from formal mentoring research are helpful but limited, given that formal and informal mentoring relationships differ in several ways. In general, informal mentoring relationships tend to endure for a number of years – much longer than formal mentoring relationships9,40. Further, informal mentors are embedded within their mentee’s social circles, making them more involved and accessible and more likely to have similar sociocultural backgrounds to mentees40.

the present study seeks to examine the extent to which youth who experienced physical or sexual abuse by a caregiver reported the presence of informal mentors, the characteristics of these mentoring relationships, and the extent to which these relationships serve as protective factors by buffering the negative impact of trauma on adult outcomes. Pursuant of these aims, we utilized the Add Health dataset, which is large, nationally representative and longitudinal.

As noted above, we found a sizeable minority of participants reported experiencing physical (29%) and sexual (5%) abuse during childhood. These rates of exposure are consistent with those reported in some previous national studies 45, but are somewhat higher than others 1

Our results also document a range of negative adult health outcomes associated with these adverse experiences during childhood, largely consistent with our first hypothesis. In particular, both physical and sexual abuse during childhood were associated with violent and non-violent anti-social behavior, health limitations, a recent STI, and suicidality during adulthood. Further, both abuse types were associated with recent re-exposure to violence during adulthood. These findings are consistent with previous research, which links childhood abuse to elevated risk for physical and mental health problems as well as revictimization later in life17,18,23.

The presence of a mentor did not moderate the impact of physical or sexual abuse on any of the adult outcomes we examined, suggesting that the simple presence of a mentor is insufficient in buffering against the negative effects of trauma. However, among participants who reported having a mentor during adolescence, the length of the mentoring relationships did significantly moderate the association of childhood physical and sexual abuse with suicidality during adulthood.

participants who experienced physical abuse reported having shorter mentoring relationships characterized by limited closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact. It is possible that children who experienced physical abuse by caregivers were more likely to be placed under the care of or contact with non-parent adults, such as extended family members, family friends, neighbors, or helping professionals. However, these youth may have struggled to form strong bonds with adults in their life, resulting in shorter, more distant relationships. These findings align with formal mentoring research, which has found that youth who have experienced abuse, strained caregiver relationships, and other environmental risk factors tend to experience shorter and lower quality relationships with mentors37,38,47. More generally, the experience of abuse, particularly at the hands of caregivers, can alter children’s relational schemas and impair the sense of trust and safety with others, making it difficult to establish close, intimate relationships with others.

However, it was surprising that sexual abuse was not associated with the presence or characteristics of mentoring relationships. Research has shown that childhood sexual abuse, like physical abuse, threatens youth’s ability to establish trusting, intimate relationships, leading to social dysfunction and isolation22. However, it is possible that these effects do not extend to informal mentoring relationships, specifically. Alternatively, the low base rate of sexual abuse in our sample may have made it difficult to uncover significant associations with relationships characteristics.

Contributions, Limitations, and Future Directions

This study makes several contributions to the existing body of literature. First, it is among the first studies to examine associations among childhood abuse, adverse adult outcomes, and natural mentoring relationships. We conducted this investigation in the large, nationally representative Add Health dataset, and we handled missing data using a rigorous multiple imputation approach, ensuring that the analytic sample remained representative of the original sample and thus the U.S. population as a whole. The longitudinal nature of the data allowed us to examine the long-term impact of childhood abuse and mentoring relationships during adolescence. Our findings replicate previous literature linking that childhood abuse to a range of adverse adult outcomes. We add to this literature by documenting the impact of childhood abuse on the prevalence and characteristics of natural mentoring relationships and the potential and limitations of these relationships as protective factors among previously maltreated youth.

Recommendations and Conclusions

            Consistent with studies on formal mentoring relationships29, our findings suggest that natural mentoring relationships may be a useful tool in offsetting some of the elevated risk for maladjustment associated with childhood abuse. However, this buffering effect was modest and limited, suggesting that mentoring is a useful resource but far from a panacea for maltreated youth. Mentoring relationships should not be viewed as a replacement for rigorous, empirically supported therapeutic interventions for childhood trauma. Rather, clinicians and other service providers working with maltreated youth (particularly those who were victimized by primary caregivers) might help youth take stock of other adults in their network who might provide support, help them to cultivate these relationships and maintain connections, and engage nonparent mentors in the youth’s treatment. In short, natural mentors might be a helpful piece that fits into more comprehensive support and services for youth who experienced early childhood abuse.”

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