Smoothing bumps in the road: Research uses attachment theory to improve mentoring practice

Zilberstein, K. & Spencer, R. (2017). Breaking bad: An attachment perspective on youth mentoring relationship closures. Child & Family Social Work, 22(1), 67-76. doi:10.1111/cfs.12197

Summarized by Justin Preston


In a recent republication, the journal Child & Family Social Work highlighted an article with some useful lessons for mentoring programs looking to find ways of supporting youths who have a history of fragmented and turbulent relationships.

Research on both formal and natural mentoring has indicated that closer, more enduring relationships are much more likely to foster positive youth outcomes. However, not every child comes into a mentoring relationship with a solid background of healthy friendships and connections with their families and caregivers. Children with more challenges in forming strong and enduring relationships with others deserve and require additional support in helping to develop the skills necessary for healthy, lasting connections with peers and others.

Unfortunately, as mentoring program staff surely know, such children are more likely to have their mentoring relationship end prematurely. Premature ends, or closures, to mentoring relationships have been found to leave the mentee experiencing no benefits from their relationship. In some case, the child is left even worse off than when the match first began. Young people with histories of abuse or attachment problems encountered higher disruption rates in mentoring relationships, one study found.

Research has demonstrated that strong mentoring relationships are built on bonds of trust, honesty, consistency, reliability, and authenticity. The authors of the present sought to integrate attachment theory, or the developmental understanding of how children form attachments to their caregivers during their early years, into actionable steps that mentoring programs can use to inform their matching and mentor match support process.

According to the authors, mentoring relationships are a form of secondary attachment relationship, which can serve as an important arena for establishing expectations around security, safety, opportunities for growth, unconditional regard, active and authentic engagement, and empathy. If experienced consistently, positive relationships can help a youth reframe their understanding of what a “normal” relationship can be.

Attachment to Improve Mentoring Relationships

“As the foundation of relational security and trust remains consistency, reliability, safety, and empathetic communication, mentors should hone those qualities,” state the authors. Further, it is important that mentors are able to recognize and reflect the feelings and concerns of the youth. Often, a youth can be defensive, which can hide their true wishes for attachment and a secure relationship.

No relationship is without its bumps and hiccups along the way. That’s a natural part of any relationship, and mentors must be ready to recognize and repair any rifts that occur with their mentee. It can be a valuable learning opportunity for the mentee (and maybe the mentor, too!), demonstrating that difficulties in relationships can be acknowledged, openly faced, and handled collaboratively.

Reaching the End

An important aspect of that relationship is the closure. Youth with previous histories of loss and disrupted relationships may find this period especially difficult, and may need extra help in structuring and handling the closure of a relationship.

When a mentoring relationship nears its end, it is critical that closures should be framed positively and planned in advance. Doing so has numerous benefits, according to the authors. This highlights the good experienced in the mentoring relationship. As the authors state, “Terminations that enable clients to feel valued and helped rather than abandoned, rejected and powerless facilitate the creation and endurance of secure working models…Beneficial terminations consolidate and generalize the numerous gains achieved through the mentoring partnership and facilitate the acquisition of new skills.”

A planned closure also gives the youth experience in a loss that is non-traumatic. An opportunity to cope with distressing feelings can be transferred to other situations as the youth face and negotiate future challenging life events.

Putting Ideas into Action

So what does this mean for programs? In a word: training. Emphasizing these skills and values as a programmatic goal and ethos can go a long way to helping mentors put them into action during the course of their mentoring relationship.

The National Mentoring Resource Center has a whole host of options available for mentoring programs looking to beef up the training component of their program (click here for one example). And training need not only occur before a mentoring match is made. It can occur at periods throughout the life of the match relationship, as program resources allow, which would enable the program to be responsive to the challenged experienced by the mentor and mentee during their relationship.


To access the original research article, click here.