by Jean Rhodes
Last week, we sat down with Smith College Adjunct Assoc. Professor Karen Zilberstein to explore how mentoring relationships work. In this highly recommended new podcast interview, Karen discusses why an understanding of “attachment theory (which has deep roots in the fields of biology, psychiatry, and psychology) is so relevant to mentoring. Attachment theory shows how positive relationships work to change adolescents’ perceptions of themselves and their relationships. As Karen explains, children form their conceptions of relationships through their early experiences with primary caregivers, or attachment figures.
- Sensitive and responsive care-giving engenders in children a sense of self-worth: they see themselves as worthy of love, and others as trustworthy to give love and to be consistently available in times of need.
- Unreliable or insensitive care-giving engenders insecurity in children. They feel anger and disappointment, and they view others in their lives as unlikely to meet their needs. These beliefs and expectations, sometimes called working models, are believed to exist on a largely unconscious level but to influence interpersonal relationships throughout and beyond childhood..
Karen also explains how attachment issues often become more prominent during adolescence, when changing relationships with parents and peers evoke questions about identity and intimacy and challenge adolescents to consider others’ perspectives. Not surprisingly, adolescents with deep-seated insecurities about relationships tend to be more vulnerable to self-criticism and distress. Here’s where mentors come in. Mentors can help these adolescents create strategies for coping with stress without coming down so hard on themselves, and in certain cases mentors can serve as alternative or secondary attachment figures. In doing so, they can help adolescents to realign their conceptions of themselves in relation to others.
Working models of relationships are difficult to change, but not impossible. Youth can adapt to changing life circumstances, such as connecting with a teacher or coach. In fact, this stage of development may be uniquely well-suited for revision and reconceptualization of one’s working models of relationships, since so much rapid change of some kind is inevitable during these years.
Simon Larose recently described how an understanding of attachment theory shapes his work, and we have summarized a great article by Zegers on the topic. In a series of studies, spanning over a decade, my colleagues and I have tested some of the social and emotional effects of mentoring. We have found that mentoring relationships can lead to increases in the levels of intimacy, communication, and trust that adolescents feel toward their parents and teachers. These improvements, in turn, led to positive changes in a wide array of areas, such as the adolescents’ sense of self-worth and scholastic achievement.
Despite the consistency of our findings across several studies, it has remained to be determined how these processes work for different youth. The work summarized by Karen will help move this research further down the field. Findings regarding attachments should assuage parents’ fears that mentors will usurp their influence. Rather than acting as a substitute, mentoring appears to produce positive effects that reverberate back, ultimately drawing adolescents and their parents closer together.
P.S. Karen is a rising star in our field. In recent months, she has thoughtfully presented her work at two Short Courses and we summarized Karen’s work on helpful strategies for handling terminations in mentoring. Karen and Renee Spencer have a new paper on terminations.