New study explores how natural mentoring relationships can benefit survivors of caregiver childhood abuse

Ku, E. B. W., Hagler, M. A., Parnes, M. F., Schwartz, S. E. O., Rhodes, J. E., & Erickson, L. D. (2021). Natural mentoring relationships among survivors of caregiver childhood abuse: Findings from the Add Health Study. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

1483(1), 50–66.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although social support can bolster resilience in childhood adversity, there is a limited amount of research that explores how the presence of non-parental figures affect the lives of childhood abuse survivors.
  • This study draws on data from the Add Health dataset, in order to investigate the following things:
    • The reported presence of informal mentors in the lives of youth who have experienced sexual or physical abuse by a caregiver. 
    • The attributes of the reported mentoring relationships.
    • The extent that these reported relationships can safeguard mentees from the detrimental effects of trauma on adult outcomes.
  • Various findings were drawn from the results. 
    • Youth who experienced childhood physical abuse from their caregivers were more likely to report having a natural mentor than for those that didn’t support abuse.
      • Despite this, youth survivors of childhood abuse by caregivers stated that they experienced lower interpersonal closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact within their mentoring relationships.
    • Although having a natural mentor didn’t mitigate the effects of trauma on adult outcomes, longer-lasting mentoring relationships during adolescents can help weaken the association between childhood caregiver physical or sexual abuse in addition to suicidality in adulthood. 
  • Although natural mentoring can help alleviate some of the psychological and health outcomes of survivors of caregiver abuse, mentoring isn’t a sufficient safeguard, by itself, to treat childhood trauma – it’s still important for survivors to seek evidence-based therapeutic interventions. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Social support promotes resilience to adverse childhood events, but little is known about the role of natural mentors—caring, nonparental adults—in the lives of childhood abuse survivors. The current study draws from a large, longitudinal, nationally representative sample (Add Health) to examine the prevalence and characteristics of natural mentoring relationships for adolescents with a history of caregiver childhood abuse, and the extent to which these relationships are associated with psychological and health outcomes in adulthood. Among the sample (n = 12,270), 28.82% and 4.86% reported caregiver childhood physical and sexual abuse, respectively. Youth who reported caregiver childhood physical abuse were more likely than those who did not endorse abuse to report having a natural mentor, but their mentoring relationships were characterized by lower interpersonal closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact. Exposure to caregiver childhood abuse was associated with adverse outcomes during adulthood, including antisocial behavior, physical health limitations, and suicidality; the presence of a natural mentor did not buffer the negative impact of trauma on adult outcomes. However, longer mentoring relationships during adolescence buffered the strength of the association between both caregiver physical and sexual abuse during childhood and suicidality during early adulthood.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The current study sought to examine associations among caregiver childhood abuse, adverse adult outcomes, and informal mentoring relationships during adolescence. In our nationally representative sample, a sizeable minority of participants reported experiencing physical (29%) or sexual (5%) abuse during childhood. Although rates of exposure have varied in previous studies, those found in our study are within the range of those found in other national samples.1,2,70 Between-study differences in rates may reflect methodological differences, including reporters (self versus parent), item wording, and sampling. Contrary to the hypotheses, our findings indicated that caregiver childhood physical abuse was associated with an increased likelihood of having a mentor. It is possible that nonparental adults, such as extended family members, family friends, neighbors, teachers, or professionals within the social service system, are more likely to intervene or become involved with children who experience physical abuse by caregivers. This finding also challenges the assumption that youth who have experienced abuse are unlikely to develop natural mentoring relationships. Interestingly, this finding stands in contrast to other studies that indicate that youth in the foster care system are less likely to report having a natural mentor,49,50 suggesting that other factors, such as caregiver transitions and geographical moves, may contribute to decreased natural mentoring within this population, rather than experiencing physical abuse per se.

However, consistent with the hypotheses, participants who experienced caregiver physical abuse reported having mentoring relationships characterized by limited closeness, shorter duration, and less frequent contact. These youth may have struggled to form strong bonds with other adults in their life, resulting in shorter, more distant relationships. These findings align with formal mentoring research of at-risk youth, which has found that youth who have experienced abuse, strained caregiver relationships, and other environmental risk factors tend to experience shorter and lower quality relationships with mentors. More generally, the experience of abuse, particularly at the hands of caregivers, can alter children’s relational schemas and impair their sense of trust and safety with others; this makes it difficult to establish close, intimate relationships with others. Further, trauma-exposed youth may be exposed to other stressors and instabilities, such as neighborhood disorder, caregiver instability, and frequent moves, which may make it more difficult for them to establish close, long-lasting relationships with nonparental adults.

It was surprising that caregiver sexual abuse was not associated with the presence or characteristics of mentoring relationships. Research has shown that childhood sexual abuse, like physical abuse, threatens youth’s ability to establish trusting, intimate relationships, leading to social dysfunction and isolation. However, it is possible that these effects do not extend to informal mentoring relationships, specifically. Alternatively, the low base rate of caregiver sexual abuse in our sample may have made it difficult to uncover significant associations with relationship characteristics.

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