Relationship-Building Behaviors: An Antidote to Loneliness

By Amanda Davis, Reprinted from the National Mentoring Resource Center

Loneliness and social isolation have plagued young people in our society long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A national study conducted by Cigna in 2018 found that Gen Z was the loneliest generation in the U.S., with nearly 50% of young people surveyed reporting that they did not have any meaningful in-person connections[1]. Researchers consistently find that loneliness and social isolation can be as bad for your physical health as other well-established risk factors, like being obese or smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day[2],3. Put simply, loneliness is dangerous.

In line with the Surgeon General’s recent calls for strengthened social infrastructure and a culture of connection across the U.S. to combat loneliness[3], positive relationships between mentors and mentees can help reduce the risk that comes with the isolation that many young people face. In exploring the things that contribute to strong mentor-mentee relationships, I can’t help but notice that our traditional “relationship quality” surveys and measurement scales reflect qualities of the relationship that cannot be easily changed. For example, mentors have little control over how long they have known their mentee, or how close their mentee may feel to them. Imagine, for example, that a mentor, or their supervisor, sees that a mentee rated their feeling of closeness with their mentor as a 2 (somewhat close) versus 4 (very close). It might be confusing or challenging to understand what’s accounting for that, or what to do to improve closeness. Is it because the mentor is being rude? Dismissive of the mentee’s perspective? Isn’t showing interest in the mentee’s hobbies, or family? We don’t really know. There could also be a number of factors not related to the mentor that account for the rating provided. For example, a young person may judge relational closeness as being low if they have access to other adults in their network with whom they feel closer. Or, perhaps a mentee is experiencing mental health challenges and is withdrawing from others as a result. While subjective measures might be good for some research purposes, they typically hold little value in promoting quality improvements in what mentors actually do with mentees, or what might need to change. What mentors can control are the specific relationship-building behaviors that they engage in. In other words, there are a lot of things mentors can do within the mentoring relationship that may lead to a strong relationship. By understanding the things mentors can do to build positive relationships with their mentees, we are one step closer to realizing the potential of mentoring to help end social isolation and loneliness.

So, what are some relationship-building behaviors that mentors engage in to build positive relationships with mentees? Research suggests that supporting youth autonomy by allowing them to make choices for themselves is one way to foster a positive relationship. Similarly, asking a mentee about his or her favorite things and taking time to notice and check in when things seem “off” can go a long way in making them feel seen and heard. Even the simple things like a mentor greeting a mentee by name when seeing them and telling the mentee that they care about them (in addition to showing them in all the ways they already do!) demonstrate a level of care that may be unique for them. Research that centers youth voices also finds that young people enjoy hearing about their mentors’ life and experiences and joking around with their mentor[4][5].

For my upcoming dissertation project, I am developing and conducting a large-scale field test of a measurement tool that examines relationship-building behaviors that occur within informal mentoring relationships between teachers and students. I hope that this measure can be refined and used to inform efforts to support positive interactions within all types of mentoring relationships — both formal and informal — in the future. At the end of the day, mentors have the power to develop and maintain positive relationships with their mentees through their behaviors. Understanding the importance of relationship-building behaviors is a critical first step to helping to end the epidemic of loneliness through mentoring.

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[1] Cigna. (2018). Cigna Newsroom—Loneliness In America. Cigna Newsroom.

[2] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.

[3] Scott, D. (2023, May 3). The surgeon general says loneliness is as deadly as smoking. Vox.

[4] Ben-Eliyahu, A., Yoviene Sykes, L. A., & Rhodes, J. E. (2021). Someone who ‘gets’ me: Adolescents’ perceptions of positive regard from natural mentors. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 29(3), 305–327.

[5] Boser, J., & Poppen, W. A. (1978). Identification of teacher verbal response roles for improving student–teacher relationships. The Journal of Educational Research, 72(2), 90–93.