New research highlights differential effects of natural mentors on youth eating disorders

Editor’s Note: This study highlights the importance of both recognizing the benefits of a mentoring relationship for youth who are experiencing difficulties with their body self-image as well as the limits of a supportive mentoring relationship in youth diagnosed with eating disorders. By finding this balance between benefit and limits, programs can help support youth who are in need by providing an additional layer of backing that may not exist in more formalized clinical contexts.

Stephens, L. E., Bowers, E. P., & Lerner, J. V. (2017). Positive youth development and adolescent eating disorder symptomatology: The role of natural mentors. Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 473-488. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21952

Summarized by Justin Preston

Introduction (reprinted from Abstract)

Natural mentoring relationships have been linked to diverse outcomes in youth; however, little research has examined the role of natural mentors in adolescent eating disorder symptomatology. The present study applied a strength-based, positive youth development (PYD) perspective to examine the cross-sectional relations among disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, PYD, and natural mentoring relationships.

We used data from 975 9th-grade youth (61.1% female; mean age = 15.01, standard deviation = 0.73) who participated in the 4-H Study of PYD. Natural mentoring relationships had a differential association with outcomes based on youth sex. Natural mentors were linked to higher levels of PYD in both males and females, but these relationships were more strongly linked to eating disorder symptomatology and PYD in males.

Having a natural mentor predicted significantly lower body dissatisfaction in males, but not in females. Natural mentoring relationships did buffer the relation between drive for thinness symptoms and PYD in females. The present study provides evidence for the benefits natural mentors may provide to youth reporting disordered eating attitudes and behaviors.

Implications (reprinted from Discussion)

This study applied a strengths-based perspective to examine the role of natural mentors in predicting youth eating disorder symptomatology and PYD; in addition, [the authors] aimed to examine whether youth relationships with natural mentors moderated the impact of eating disorder symptomatology on PYD.

The resources provided by these youth–adult relationships may not often be recognized in approaches to adolescent eating disorders derived from a psychopathological perspective. [The authors’] results indicated that eating disorder symptomatology was negatively related to a comprehensive measure of PYD. Youth relationships with natural mentors were negatively related to drive for thinness and body dis-satisfaction in males and positively related to PYD for both males and females.

Consistent with prior research on gender and positive and problematic outcomes (Phelps et al., 2007; Zimmerman, Phelps, & Lerner, 2008), [the authors] found that females reported higher levels of eating disorder symptomatology but also higher levels of PYD.

The differential benefits for males and females point to the importance of considering what resources might benefit what outcomes for which individuals. For example, the present study found no beneficial links between natural mentoring and symptoms of bulimia in males or females.

The items used to assess bulimia indicate more severe disordered eating symptoms such as thoughts of bingeing and purging. A more intensive or clinical-based service may be needed to address severe eating disorder symptomatology. In turn, natural mentoring relationships may be helpful in reducing levels of body dissatisfaction in males, but not females.

Finally, results indicated that natural mentors buffered the negative link between drive for thinness and PYD in females. It may be drive for thinness symptoms such as feeling guilty after overeating, terror at gaining weight, and preoccupation with thinness are at a level of concern appropriate for natural mentors to intervene.


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