Today we’re bringing you a follow up from an earlier interview with Dr. Bernadine Brady, co-author of the new book “Mentoring for Young People in Care and Leaving Care: Theory, Policy and Practice”. Having had the chance to ask her about her career more generally, we also wanted to dive into her recently released work and learn more about the specific topics she and her co-authors, Pat Dolan and Caroline McGregor, cover. In case you missed our first interview, check it out here.
Dr. Brady is a Lecturer at the School of Political Science & Sociology, NUI, Galway and a Senior Researcher with the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre. She is a mixed methods researcher with a focus on social ecology and young people’s wellbeing, exploring how community, school, family and service provision influence outcomes for young people. In this interview, we ask about a range of topics that are featured in her recently released book. You can find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and concision, below:
Chronicle (C): How did you arrive at the topic for your book? What ideas culminated in this topic specifically and how did you come to it?
Dr. Bernadine Brady (BB): Over the years, we’ve done a lot of research on mentoring for young people in Ireland. I was always struck by the way the mentoring program works—the Foróige Big Brothers Big Sisters program—which is the biggest program in Ireland that we’ve been researching. It works with all different types of young people…young people in the community deemed to be in need of additional support. That could include children in foster care, or young migrant children, or children in families where they might be going through a tough time—it’s totally open.
One thing I was always struck by was that it had a really profound impact on children in the care system. I’d heard testimonies from children and young people in the care system over the years talking about how they’d been involved in so many professional systems, but that it just made such a difference to them to have somebody who was outside of all that who was there for them; a more informal type of support. So, it was always something I was very interested in pursuing further, and then we were approached by Routledge to do a book as a part of this series. Pat, Caroline and myself felt there were a lot of books out there more generally about youth mentoring, and that it would be useful to focus specifically on this topic and pull together all the international research on mentoring for children in care and young people in care. We were also interested in doing some primary research qualitative research—so we thought it was also an opportunity to publish that as part of the book as well. So that’s a long answer to your question.
“I’d heard testimonies from children and young people in the care system over the years talking about how they’d been involved in so many professional systems, but that it just made such a difference to them to have somebody who was outside of all that who was there for them.”
C: It really sounds like you’ve pulled together research from a lot of different places and perspectives. Another question I have is about the cultural context of mentoring programs and research. Have you noticed any cultural differences, either in the way that mentoring programs are implemented, or in the results that you see from research done in different countries, that are contextually sensitive to those places and cultures?
BB: I think the research from North America tends to come more from a psychology perspective and a developmental perspective, whereas I think the European research is coming from a more social justice, human rights, or ethic of care approach. So, I think that’s kind of an interesting perspective. And I suppose it’s something that, with a topic like children in care, we were keen to move away from a developmental approach. While I think there’s been a lot of really useful research undertaken in that kind of paradigm, [we wanted] to look at it from a more ethic of care perspective. I think that’s one of the main differences. But there’s huge learning internationally in terms of new innovations like youth initiated mentoring and so on from the Netherlands and from the States. Those kinds of research findings are exciting for us to read about.
C: So, another question I have is about social media, and how you see that as fitting into the mentoring landscape. The world is increasingly connected, but perhaps superficially so. Have you done or come across any work that suggests people look to replace true connectedness with contact through social media, and whether there are detrimental effects associated with this phenomenon?
BB: Nothing very specific has come up about that, but I think the one kind of learning I would take from studying this area is that a lot of young people are actually quite lonely in spite of the existence of all these networks. They really crave this face to face contact, and they really value quality face to face contact when they get it. I sometimes think adults back off teenagers thinking that they’re so connected and that they’re too cool for lots of things, but actually I think that there is room for more quality relationships and face to face interaction. I think social media can complement that but it can’t replace it really.
C: I agree with you, and that’s important to keep in mind in an increasingly digital world. So, another question I have is about how the process of natural mentoring occurs. What distinguishes a close relationship with an adult from a natural mentoring relationship? What can someone who’s in the position to go from just being in a close relationship to a real mentor do to facilitate that, and how does that happen?
BB: I have a PhD student Barbara Mircovic who’s studying natural mentors in Ireland and Croatia, so we’ve been grappling with some of these questions. For me, the difference between somebody who’s just an adult in your life compared to somebody who’s a mentor is that it’s somebody the young person would go to for advice or guidance. It might not explicitly be advice or guidance, but they’d use them as a sounding board. They’re someone they felt they could rely on if they needed to talk to somebody. It’s quite hard to define in one way, and it’s probably quite subjective as well. I think a lot of adults wouldn’t even think of themselves in terms of being natural mentors, but I suppose if there were more awareness of the concept, they could become more aware of the important role that they can play and enhance that a little bit. I think the main thing is being perceived by the young person as somebody [who will] listen to you, talk to you, who knows about stuff that you can trust. That you’re non-judgmental, trusting, all those kinds of things.
C: Further, in the context of natural mentoring, you talk about how for youth who are in care or leaving care, that can be very tumultuous, and a natural mentoring relationship has the potential to endure that as the mentor comes from someone in their own social network. Are there any ways that you’ve come across that have natural mentoring practices informing formal mentoring practices? Are there things that you see benefitting people specifically in a natural mentoring context that could somehow be implemented more systematically in a formal mentoring program like Big Brother’s Big Sisters or otherwise?
BB: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, one of the main things is the characteristics of natural mentors that young people identify as helpful are that they’re non-judgmental, that they’re easy going, that they understand the young person and their environment. They often tend to be somebody from within the young person’s social context, so therefore they understand them, and get them, and they don’t have to feel like they have to explain themselves. Cultural compatibility is an important one, and there has been some learning taken on board by mentoring organizations in relation to that. I’d say that a lot of those characteristics like, easygoing, fun, somebody who shares similar life experiences, was another one. A lot of young people identified mentors as those that had been through similar things to them so they could really identify with each other. So, trying to find mentors for formal mentoring that have some of those characteristics is likely to be a good strategy.
C: Do you think that programs are doing a sufficiently good job matching people right now? Do you think those systems that are in place do a good enough matching those social compatibility and background compatibility in what you’ve seen?
BB: I’d have to say I think they are actually doing a really good job. [In] a lot of the research we’ve done both young people and mentors talk about how well matched they are—that they have similar interests, similar personalities—and that they really appreciate how well they were matched. So I do think—certainly in Ireland—they put an awful lot of work into the matching and that I think really pays off. It makes a big difference. Some of the challenges they face are that in more rural areas it might be difficult to find a really good match for a young person. A mentor might be available who’s a good match but live an hour, two hours away or something. So I think that’s a challenge. In bigger population areas it’s much easier—it’ll never be very easy—but it’s easier to make a match based on personality dynamics and interests and so on.
C: Another question that I have is about coping and resilience. I was curious how specifically a mentor can be part of productive coping strategies leading mentees towards more productive and less avoidant approaches, and what the research you’ve done and come across has shown on this topic?
BB: The theoretical framework that we drew on mostly there was from Erica Frydenberg. She identified that during adolescence, a lot of young people can have different types of coping strategies that she identifies as non-productive or productive. Some of the non-productive ones are, say, keeping to yourself, bottling up feelings, having angry outbursts, ignoring a problem or just seeing the negatives, trying to reduce tension through risk behavior, disengaging from school and hobbies, having a defeatist mindset, and having low social capital (as in not engaging socially).
With the qualitative research we did, there were a lot of examples of how young people were actually engaging in these non-productive coping strategies. A lot of them are quite isolated. They’re angry, they’re getting into trouble at school because they’re angry, they were not attending school, they had a defeatist mindset, and they weren’t really involved in many activities in their community. We argued that our analysis showed that they moved to more productive coping strategies in terms of getting out of the house, engaging with others, having somewhere to express their feelings and starting to feel comfortable expressing their feelings, better awareness of their own anger and what was causing it, and better capacity to manage their anger. Often times mentors actively worked with them on strategies to manage their anger. They focused on the positive aspects of the situation, they learned how to problem solve, they sought out relaxing diversions like sport, recreation, socializing if they were feeling stressed, or even as a way of preventing stress, and they engaged better with school and hobbies as well. There was also some evidence of people moving from a defeatist mindset to a growth mindset, and also developing good social capital. So, there were very specific examples of how the coping strategies changed.
C: Yeah, I find that really interesting, in how someone can help a mentee gain the tools to get through any challenge they’re facing. Related to what you just said, I was curious about your discussion of social capital. You mention a few different kinds of social capital in the book—how there can be a lifeline type of mentoring, and a bridging type as well. What are some ways to use natural or formal mentoring to connect people to resources beyond their natural social network and expand their social capital?
BB: We had a few examples. Again, in the Irish context the mentoring is run by Foróige national youth organization, and the context of mentoring is quite different here because it’s embedded within a youth organization that’s very much about social capital and youth work and those kinds of young people in the community. So while it’s a one to one intervention, there’s a huge range of resources that are available through the organization, that depending on the young person’s interest, they can be connected to. We have quite a few examples where a young person might develop or have an interest in something, and then both through their mentor and the caseworkers in the mentoring organization, they could be linked in with opportunities to pursue that within other youth groups or encouraged to come along to something. Also, there was an example of a young person in this book who was in care, and she had no family context in terms of work or employment opportunities. Her mentor’s husband worked in a gym or something, and he arranged for her to get work experience so that she’d be able to have it on her CV and she’d be able to get the college course that she wanted to get. So I think there’s a lot of examples of how mentors can connect young people to individual or employment based contacts and also to social contacts and things like that. There was one young person in the study as well who, through working with Foróige, became involved in loads of youth groups and realized that she had a real taste for leadership and became elected to the national counsel and lots of different things. So again, coming out of the house and mentoring was her first steppingstone into that world. The metaphor of the bridge can be a really good one in terms of describing how that can happen. It’s something I’m personally really interested in. I just think it’s a really fascinating concept how that can happen.
C: Wow. Another question that I have, and this is in the context of relational cultural theory, is based on a line from the book which has to do with a mentor having “power with” instead of “power over” a mentee. I really like that language. Could you expand a little bit on that concept and what that says about a successful mentoring relationship and what some of the qualities of one might be in light of that language?
BB: When I came across the relational cultural theory it’s like the page lit up in front of me, because I just thought it really embodies a lot of what I’ve felt about mentoring and good mentoring relationships. So, the “power with” rather than “power over”: for me I think the power issues are really crucial in mentoring relationships. When I heard about mentoring first, I used to think it was about somebody telling you what to do or somebody thinking they knew better than you what you needed. I realized, it’s actually somebody working alongside you trying to help you to figure out what it is you want and need, what makes you tick, and empowering you to achieve that. So, for me, that’s a huge thing. Those power issues, and that the young person is respected and listened to and not preached to—because I don’t think any of us like to be preached to—and I think there’s just too much of that. So I think that power alongside or power with sums it up really nicely. It’s not your job to direct them, it’s your job to walk alongside them and help them in whatever way you see necessary.
“When I heard about mentoring first, I used to think it was about somebody telling you what to do or somebody thinking they knew better than you what you needed. I realized, it’s actually somebody working alongside you trying to help you to figure out what it is you want and need, what makes you tick, and empowering you to achieve that…It’s not your job to direct them, it’s your job to walk alongside them and help them in whatever way you see necessary.”
C: What is the interplay of a formal mentoring relationship and a natural mentoring relationship? How can they work together and are there any difficulties that you’ve come across in terms of those two elements combining? What resources might come from each?
BB: Lots of people can have really important, enduring, natural mentoring relationships, but it’s possible that they will come and go—that they might be strong for a couple of months, and then the person might fade out of your life and maybe come back in at another time. Formal mentoring relationships are valuable for people who don’t have natural mentoring relationships—but also maybe for those who do. It’s a different sort of energy or dynamic that’s introduced and the fact that it’s a focused period of time for at least a year and possibly longer gives it a structure and an impetus that may not be there for natural mentoring relationships as well. So, I think that both can be quite different, and serve different purposes at different times.
C: Yeah, that makes sense. What are some misconceptions about how a mentoring relationship in the context of care may vary from a mentoring relationship with a young person who isn’t in care, and is there anything you’d like to clear up about how people may think about that? How is a mentoring relationship particularly important to young people in care?
BB: The one thing that really stands out for me, from the research for the book, is the fact that (going back to our issue of power) children in the care system have so many professionals involved in their lives. They have social workers, and they may be involved in the courts, and they have lots of professional intervention in their lives. The overriding challenge in that, from a lot of the perspectives we heard, is that young people didn’t perceive those relationships to be very authentic. They felt they were very instrumental and again and they often felt that they were in a relatively powerless position.
I think that constantly engaging with people who you don’t feel yourself with, or you can’t be your real self, is really tiring and really exhausting. I think we all know that [from] if you’re constantly having to put on a face or you feel you can’t be yourself. [Then, if] you do develop trust in a social worker they might be gone in a month’s time—they might be moved somewhere else or whatever.
So, a lot of young people in our research talked about just not feeling that they were heard in that world. I think where the mentoring fitted them is that they really saw it as much more authentic, real-world, relationship. We drew on Habermas’s theory of the life world and the system world—it was like the mentor was in the life world and the social workers and all those people were in the system world. Looking in from the outside, I would have thought why would you go and introduce another relationship into that young person’s life when they already have too many people involved? But actually, for a lot of young people, and I’m not saying it would work for everybody, but for a lot of the young people, it was actually a relief. It was like an oxygen tank that helped them deal with all the other stuff. That for me was kind of a surprising finding, but I think it goes to the heart of why we feel strongly that that kind of natural friendship non-directive mentoring for young people who are vulnerable is really important, because as I said they have a lot of people making plans for them and with them so that informal support is really valuable.
“Looking in from the outside, I would have thought why would you go and introduce another relationship into that young person’s life when they already have too many people involved? But actually, for a lot of young people… it was actually a relief. It was like an oxygen tank that helped them deal with all the other stuff.”
C: Yeah, that’s really fascinating, and it makes sense that they just need someone to be real with them. One final question—do you have any words of advice or inspiration for someone who might be thinking about exploring a topic that’s important to them in a book, and how to go about how to go about writing one?
BB: Yeah, we actually really enjoyed writing it. It was lovely. I had time—I was on sabbatical so I had extra time—so it was just really nice to close myself off in an office for a day with loads of articles and read them. It was a pleasure to read all the work of the other fantastic mentoring researchers all over the world and to have time to pull it all together. Doing the interviews with the young people and having the chance to analyze and then reflect on it in terms of the theory was really exciting as well—to have time and space to reflect on new concepts and just trying to make sense of it all. That whole side of it was really good.
In terms of inspiration for people hoping to write a book: the fact that it was co-authored was really good because it took the pressure off. So myself and Pat [Dolan] and Caroline [McGregor] each took responsibility for a different chapter so that really broke down the workload a lot. So some of the advice I’d give maybe is to consider co-authoring if possible, and also to have colleagues to read your chapters and give feedback and things like that. But I think go for it if anyone is thinking of doing it. Putting together a proposal is a really good—more than developing a research proposal, a book proposal—once you get down on paper what the ideas are you’ll find that actually it’s almost impossible to restrict yourself to only putting so much into it because you’ll find in the end actually there’s a lot more that you’d like to do. I think you’d be surprised—go do it!
C: I’m sure it pours out of you once you get started.
BB: Yeah exactly, that’s it. That’s not to say it was all plain sailing, but anyway anything with a deadline always requires a bit of effort.
C: Right. Well it has really been a pleasure to speak with you, and to learn more about your work, so I want to thank you again for taking the time to sit down with me.
BB: Thank you!