New research identifies links between mentee strain and mentors’ response strategies

Wesely, J., Dzoba, N., Miller, H. & Rasche, C. (2016). Mentoring at-risk youth: An examination of strain and mentor response strategies. American Journal of Criminal Justice. DOI:10.1007/s12103-016-9353-7

Summarized by Justin Preston



Mentoring, in its various forms, has long been touted as a way of offering support and guidance to at-risk youth. While the literature remains mixed on the overall impact of mentoring, little research has examined the ways in which mentoring affects processes and outcomes related to delinquency. Research has identified ways in which mentors can be trained and supported in improving the quality of their mentoring relationship, with emphases on relational processes such as authenticity, empathy, collaboration, and companionship.

Mentoring for at-risk youth is often utilized for youths involved with the juvenile justice system, with mixed results reported. It is believed, however, that mentoring for at-risk youth can serve as a way of improving the youths’ resiliency in the face of adversity, via the positive social support provided by the mentoring relationship.

The present study sought to investigate the ways in which mentoring could reduce the impacts of strain on at-risk youth by gaining greater insight into the manner in which mentors perceived and assessed their mentees’ strain. Here, strain is defined as the result of one (or more) of the following three conditions:

1) removal of positive stimuli,

2) introduction of negative stimuli, or

3) failure to achieve positively valued goals.

The strains common to at-risk youth typically result from an inability to avoid negative environmental stimuli. It is also important to keep in mind that strains experienced by youth tend to have a cumulative effect, which increases the likelihood of experiencing negative emotions such as anger. Mentoring has been posited as a way of helping to develop a series of coping strategies that could be utilized by at-risk youth when navigating the challenges posed by strain.


The findings from this study are based on information collected through the use of qualitative interviews with a small sample of mentors (N=13) in a southeastern metropolitan branch of a national mentoring program. The sample was drawn from program chapters within two middle schools located in neighborhoods with average household income levels below the national poverty guidelines. One school’s mentors received positive coping strategy training while the other did not.

Program mentors were paired with 6th grade students labeled as “at-risk” based on academic, behavioral, or family counseling referrals. Mentors and mentees typically met an average of one hour per week, most often during the students’ lunch hour or immediately after school. Mentors ranged in age from 19 to 64 years, and five mentors (38.5%) were female and eight were male. Ten of the mentors (76.9%) were self-identified as Caucasian while three (21.3%) identified as African-American.

Data for this study were collected through semi-structured interviews which covered topics ranging from the mentor’s background to sources of mentee problems and stress.


The findings from the present study fell into four distinct, but related categories:

  • Mentors’ perceptions of strain in the mentees’ lives
  • Mentors’ responses to mentees’ strain
  • Perceived effects of positive coping strategies
  • The significance of active listening

Most commonly, mentors identified stress at home as the main source of strain for their mentees. This included instability in housing, abusive parenting styles, neglect, and more. From the mentors’ perspective, the disrupted parent-child relationship led many of their mentees to become “parentified” and serve as the one who “takes care of everyone else in the family” from a young age. The mentors also keyed in on the link between stress at home and troubles concentrating and performing in academic settings. Generally, the mentors believed their mentees were capable of achieving much more than their current performance would seem to indicate.

When responding to their mentees’ strain, mentors adopted one of several approaches. These included emotion regulation (the processes by which an individual limits negative emotions and their impact by monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions), conflict resolution (characterized by two parties solving a problem by seeking a mutually beneficial outcome), and future orientation (strategy that invokes expectations, hopes, and fears about the future, as well as active efforts to set and attain goals). Lastly, mentors utilized a strategy built around active listening, which encompasses a variety of techniques including watching the speaker and making eye contact, providing feedback, and being emotionally and intellectually involved in the exchange.

Mentors’ perceptions of the effects of these strategies were generally positive. In mentees who adopted one or more of these strategies, mentors believed that their mentees’ resilience was supported and even boosted over time. These benefits seemed to carry over into other areas of the mentees’ lives beyond the confines of the mentoring relationship itself.

Implications for Mentors and Mentoring Programs

The present study offers a lot in the way of lessons for mentors and mentoring programs. Broadly speaking, there must be a recognition of mentoring as a way of building skills that translate into multiple areas of life. These coping strategies need not be focused solely on studying or other instrumental skills, although those are important as well. Rather, working on navigating the challenges and strains faced by at-risk youth can have spillover effects that ripple into other areas of the youths’ lives.

For mentoring programs, the present study is a solid reminder of the importance of supporting your mentors in developing skills like active listening. It can be a tall order trying to prepare mentors for everything that may come their way, but skills like conflict resolution and active listening can be adaptive across a number of situations. Emphasizing these skills is another way of emphasizing the youth voice and experience, which can help build rapport and promote high-quality mentoring relationships.


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