New research shows the important role of natural mentors for delinquency in youth

Editor’s Note: This recent longitudinal study provides interesting insights into the specific relationship between mentoring and juvenile delinquency. Not only does this article show the positive effects mentoring relationships seem to have on delinquency, the authors also discuss certain characteristics of the mentoring relationship seem to matter the most. 

 Reference: Kelley, M. S., & Lee, M. J. (2018). When natural mentors matter: Unraveling the relationship with delinquency. Children and Youth Services Review, 91, 319-328. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.06.002 

 Summarized by Renée Klein Schaarsberg 

 Summary (reprinted from the Abstract): 

Research in the field of adolescent delinquency has, for some time now, shown a positive correlation between mentoring relationships and increased social capital, such as self-esteem, education, and employment achievements. Youth who have a mentor are also likely to have lower rates of some measures of problem behaviors. These findings, however, are complicated by factors such as type of mentor and characteristics of the mentoring relationship.  

 In this paper, we use life-course theory and the sociological construct of “mattering” derived from social learning theory, as frameworks for disentangling predictors of delinquency and the role of mentors.  

 Given the usually positive influence of mentors in the lives of youths, especially those considered “at-risk,” we explore the role of natural mentors in the delinquency and dangerousness outcomes of adolescents using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health data (Add Health), waves I-III (N=10,120).  

 Results show that natural mentors reduce delinquency over time depending upon characteristics of the mentoring relationship. A key finding is that mattering to others is in fact a vital part of the relationship between natural mentors and delinquency outcomes. The implications of these findings are discussed along with suggestions for future research. 

 Implications (reprinted from the discussion and conclusion):  

Our findings reveal that natural mentors appear to increase integration in the form of mattering and decrease delinquency with some conditions. Using a sample of adolescents that is nationally representative of U.S. adolescents collected at three points over 16 years, these results show that having a natural mentor as a young person significantly reduces delinquency and dangerousness when taking into account characteristics of the mentor relationship. We conclude here by discussing what we believe are three key contributions from our findings to the research on mentors and delinquency.  

 Not all natural mentoring relationships reduce delinquency, but some do. Our first key finding is that closeness and ongoing importance are vital components of the mentoring relationship. This finding confirms other research, primarily focusing on formal mentors, such as through an organization, that the subjective nature of the mentoring relationship is relevant for understanding its impact. Common sense would suggest that having an important relationship non-kin adult can make an important difference in one’s life speaks to improved life chances for young people. About 30% of the respondents reported having such a mentor. For those natural mentors that were described as “still important” and with relationships that were deemed currently “close” the connection to lower levels of delinquency was stronger. Duration also had a significant impact throughout the waves. As noted above, duration is an objective measure of the relationship, while closeness and importance are subjective measures. Structure and feelings help to explain the outcomes, with feelings of importance emerging as more consistent.  

 Our second key finding is that sex of the mentor is important. Males and females received different things from their mentors in terms of behaviors and domains. They also had different delinquency outcomes depending upon the sex of the mentor. Those with female mentors reported less delinquency. Possibly young people attach differently to female mentors and respond differently to their support. Perhaps it relates to the domain of the natural mentor, coupled with the types of behavior exhibited by the mentor, and if the mentor makes the protégé feel like he or she matters. The influence of female mentors pushes the social learning balance in favor of conforming behavior.  

 Our third key finding is that mattering is powerful. In fact, in our work, mattering is one explanatory factor between mentor characteristics and lower levels of delinquency over time. While we cannot link levels of mattering to the specific mentor reported by the respondent, having any natural mentor is linked to mattering and, subsequently, lower levels of delinquency. We know this because the mentors are identified in youth and we studied delinquency over time. Mattering is one indicator of integration that serves to protect young people from problem and delinquent behavior as they transition into adulthood. Mattering is part of what constitutes the bond that prevents delinquency and offending behavior. 

 These findings are relevant for policy development at a number of levels. Encouraging young people  to find and nurture relationships with school and community members can lesson engagement in delinquency and subsequent problem behavior as adults. Instead of facing an ever decreasing pool of opportunity that comes with cumulative disadvantage from involvement with delinquency, the door stays open to provide a full range of employment and life options. How does one create environments in which relationships can develop? Given the key role that women play as mentors, how does one provide opportunities for young people to find and connect with women role models? The good news is there is some innovative work being done with such efforts, for example, using sports-based programming to bridge mentoring gaps.  This issue requires defining what constitutes a “good coach” and increasing the numbers of those qualified to build positive relationships with their athletes. 

 To access the original research click here