New study explores how mentors may threaten or promote healthy autonomous decision making in youth

Davis, A. L., & McQuillin, S. D. (2021). Supporting autonomy in youth mentoring relationships.  Journal of Community Psychology, n/a(n/a).

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although it’s important for mentors to help and guide their mentees, there are positive and negative implications of mentors influencing their mentees’ decision-making. 
  • This study reviews the literature on the benefits and drawbacks of asserting autonomy and on the unique role that mentors can have on the development of youth autonomy.  
  • The proposed framework asserts that there are five domains of influence that can encourage positive autonomy in adolescents: 
    • Role modeling 
    • Encouraging 
    • Providing access to resources, relationships, & experiences 
    • Advocacy 
    • Conversations about behavior change
  • Findings indicate that positive decisional role modeling is the most effective and the least risky approach to promote youth autonomy.
  • Results also posit that autonomy-supportive skills accumulate and that influencing mentees’ decision-making prematurely, via riskier methods, can be more counterproductive than effective. 
  • It’s important for mentoring programs to have clear policies on how youth mentors should guide their mentees in terms of decision-making and are recommended to establish regulations for utilizing riskier approaches to influencing mentee behaviors. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

The preference for and exercise of autonomous decision‐making in adolescence is a normative developmental process. Yet, increased autonomy is associated with both risks and benefits. Connection to others through positive relationships, including mentoring relationships, is one context that predicts healthy autonomous decision‐making. In other ways, such relationships can interfere or stifle the development of autonomy. In synthesizing the existing scientific literature on autonomy development and autonomy‐supportive practices, we propose a framework for considering the role of mentors in supporting autonomy through five domains of influence: role modeling, encouraging, providing access to resources, relationships, and experiences, advocacy, and conversations about behavior change. We provide suggestions for research and practice.

Implications (Reprinted from Conclusions and Future Directions)

We posit that mentoring relationships are unique contexts to support young people as they develop healthy autonomy, which appears to be a cross‐cultural element of positive youth development. Consistent with the extant literature on autonomy development, a key consideration in leveraging mentoring relationships to support autonomy is mitigating the risk associated with the unhealthy exercise of autonomy as well as the risks associated with adults disrupting autonomy development. We suggest that positive decisional role modeling is perhaps the lowest risk approach to supporting positive youth development, whereas conversations about behavior change are a particularly risky endeavor, largely due to tendencies of adult helpers to use controlling language that may disrupt the relationship and interfere with healthy autonomous decision making. We propose that autonomy‐supportive skills build upon one another (see Figure 2), and premature attempts at influencing through higher‐risk means might be more harmful than helpful, especially when mentors lack training, support, and supervision in best‐practice. We recommend that mentoring programs have clear policies on how mentors directly or indirectly influence youth decision‐making and provide guidelines for higher‐risk approaches to influencing behavior (e.g., conversations about behavior change). Importantly, our suggestions highlight avenues of autonomy‐supportive influence that may particularly be germane for program sponsored mentors; however, the literature on autonomy‐supportive parenting might be equally, or more, relevant for mentors from within a youth’s close inner circles, such as extended family members, who may hold more similar roles and responsibilities to a parenting figure than a volunteer program sponsored mentor.

Consistent with previous reviews of youth mentoring research (e.g., McQuillin et al., 2018), there is very limited work on how the specific behaviors of mentors, or interactions between mentors and mentees, influence positive youth development. In fact, most extant evaluation work has largely ignored the mentor and mentee‐level interactions, favoring instead descriptions of program characteristics or match duration (McQuillin et al., 2018). This approach to studying programs in lieu of specific mentoring interactions prevents the field from understanding why and how mentors influence development. In this paper, we reviewed one theoretically relevant construct and discussed five avenues of influence that are relevant to the mentoring context. We propose that future research focus on understanding how mentors navigate these avenues of influence and the extent to which they influence autonomy development. Research considering how interactions within these domains of influence affect healthy youth autonomy may also be fruitful; for example, how do mentees’ perceptions of mentor‐shared resources or experiences affect their relationship and perceptions of autonomy support? Or, what match characteristics or individual differences moderate the influence of particular avenues of influence? The literature on Motivational Interviewing is particularly instructive, wherein researchers seek to understand how specific verbal behaviors or interactions influence healthy autonomous choices. Furthermore, more research on how mentor and mentee interactions influence autonomy and subsequent outcomes would be a boon to the field.

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