Why it’s so important to consider youth’s capacity for connection

by Jean Rhodes

In a study of successful, long-term mentoring relationships, Renee Spencer pinpointed the precise turning point in the relationship between 14 year old Alana and Alana’s diehard mentor, Stacy (Spencer, Levine, & Rhodes, 2017). Early mistreatment had shattered Alana’s capacity to forge trusting bonds, and she’d grown adept at forcing relationships to their breaking point, thereby confirming her initial suspicions. Undaunted, Stacy persisted–somehow intuiting that, hidden deep-down, there was an aching need for connection.

Stacy’s patience was rewarded when a tentative Alana called her at work one day to invite her to a Halloween festival. “And this was a huge step,” Stacy recalled, “because it was the first time that she had called me and asked me to set up a time to hang out and she had come up with the activity. So I was juggling all kinds of work and plans…and immediately I was like ‘Absolutely.’ So I turned down all these plans, just because it meant so much to me that she had called with an idea. And I was gonna make it happen, you know?”

Stacy’s unflinching response was spot on—a gossamer thread had been thrown her way and she was intent on catching and strengthening it. That critical moment eventually led to a deeper, trusting relationships and improvements in Alana’s other relationships.

By contrast, sixteen year old Danielle’s relationship had no such dramatic arc. She began meeting with Jen, a 20 year old Dartmouth College student, in January of 2015. Right from the start there was chemistry, an ease and comfort combined with an eagerness to get things done. They both loved watching the Voice and sometimes discussed contestants, but their weekly meetings were pretty much dedicated to college admissions. Danielle’s guidance counselor had referred her to the college mentoring program because she was one of those students who was right at the margin. She had expressed an interest in going to college but, by her senior year, had not taken any steps in the application process. Her single mom was holding down two jobs to keep the family afloat and just didn’t know the ropes. Indeed, just 9 percent of the nation’s poorest students earn a four-year degree by age 24, compared with 77 percent of those in the top quartile–a divide that both defines and reinforces inequality. So Jen met with Danielle for several hours per week in nearby White River Junction, VT, promising to keep returning until all the applications were filed. Together they outlined essays, sent in transcripts, requested letters, and filed fee waivers. And, since Danielle came into the program with the capacity to forge a productive relationship, she hit the ground running. Sure, hanging out and talking might have been more fun, but Danielle already had the capacity for connection and adequate support. The bond with Jen was not particularly deep or emotional, but their meetings made all the difference. In fact, compared to a “lighter touch” intervention, which provided students with all the necessary information but no mentor, those in the mentoring group were nearly twice as likely to attend a four year college. Like other targeted programs, which intervene at the right time with the right assistance, the program was a success (Carrell & Sacerdote, 2016).

The point is that not all youth need the same type of mentoring—in part because youth don’t enter programs as relational blank slates. By taking initial differences in the capacity to trust and connect into account, we can better predict the kind of intervention that will be best suited to a given youth’s needs. Because Alana was a flight risk, her mentor needed to take an approach that delicately balanced whatever other goals she may have had with building a foundation of trust. Without this, the rest of the relationship goals would have felt like cycling up a long, steep hill in a high gear. The speed and efficiency she lost by shifting down a gear or two was rewarded with important relational gains. This does not mean that relationship building is the only goal—in fact a strong connection can often emerge as new skills are learned, rather than the other way around. But the key active ingredient for Alana was the deepening of the mentor connection over time. As her capacity for trust improved and generalized, she began to reap a range of developmental benefits and was primed for other helpful relationships and interventions. By contrast, because Nicole entered the program with more adaptive representations of herself and others and a history of more satisfactory relationships, she was able to create a strong alliance early in the mentoring relationship and maintain its level throughout with minimal fluctuations. Their increased comfort and closeness over time enabled other the helpful processes that were central to the intervention, but the relationship improvements were secondary to the college readiness activities as the active ingredient (Zilcha-Mano, 2017).

From this perspective, the old maxim about taking a relationship-focused, “developmental” approach (versus a top-down prescriptive approach) and the ongoing debate about whether the mentor connection should be a goal unto itself (versus a means to a goal) are false dichotomies. Instead, the key distinction is whether or not there is an initial capacity for a sufficient connection to launch right into the intervention. Making this distinction is useful because it helps us understand the mechanisms of change and enables programs to better calibrate their expectations regarding the length of relationship, to more realistically identify goals, and to train mentors accordingly. Placed in Danielle’s intervention, Alana might have rebuffed her mentor long before the first application was filed; placed in Alana’s  intervention, Nicole might never have gone to college. In the end, both young women reached important goals, but in different gears and via very different routes.