Study of natural mentors highlights importance of relationship quality

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 10.29.24 PMWhitney, Hendricker & Offutt (2014). Moderating factors of natural mentoring relationships, problem behaviors, and emotional well-being. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 19(1), 83-105.

Summarized by Stella Kanchewa, Ph.D.

Researcher and practitioners alike have noted that quality mentoring relationships in which there is a sense of trust, mutuality and closeness have the greatest potential to affect youth’s development.

Whitney and colleagues investigated the influence of relationship quality on behavioral and emotional outcomes within adolescent’s natural mentoring relationships. They also explored whether the type of natural relationship youth had (i.e., with an adult versus a peer) would influence the relationship quality and subsequent outcomes.

Method: Data were drawn from a national study on adolescent health behaviors that followed a diverse group of 20,745 adolescents over eight years, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add-Health). The current study included 14,060 of these participants, who reported on the presence of natural mentors within their lives, problems with delinquency and alcohol use, depressed affect and self-esteem.


  • Depressed affect: Regardless of the quality of the mentoring relationship, there was no difference in reported depressive symptoms between adolescents who had a mentor and those who did not. However, those in high quality relationships with adult mentors reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms than those in low quality relationships with either adult or peer mentors.
  • Self-esteem: Adolescents in high quality relationships reported higher self-esteem than those in low quality relationships, and those with no mentor. There were no differences for those with an adult versus peer mentor; however, as the quality of the relationship increased those in peer mentoring had even greater increases in self-esteem.
  • Alcohol use: Youth in low quality relationships reported more alcohol use problems than youth in high quality relationships, and youth without a mentor. In addition, youth with adult mentors reported less alcohol use than those with peer mentors.
  • Delinquency: Regardless of the quality of the relationship or type of mentor, there were no significant differences in youth reported delinquency.

Conclusion: Overall, the findings are consistent with previous studies, which have indicated that the quality of the relationship is a key ingredient in a mentoring relationship’s endurance, and subsequent impact on youth’s development. The variation in findings amongst the different outcomes is also consistent with studies that suggest that certain types of youth difficulties (e.g., depressive symptoms, delinquency) might present substantial challenges, and might be indicative of a need for other services (e.g., therapy). Interestingly, it seems that for these types of difficulties, having a low quality relationship may have more negative effects than not having a mentor. For these adolescents it could be that having a low quality relationship may further exacerbate existing challenges.

The findings also highlight differences between having an adult versus a peer natural mentor, particularly for substance use. This finding also seems consistent with previous research and suggests that the challenges that may impact a relationship with an adolescent with substance use problems, which adults rather than peers may be better equipped to handle, particularly since peers may be too involved within the youth’s social network. Natural peer mentoring relationships differ in structure, training and support from those within formal mentoring programs. Nonethless, the current study highlights the importance of additional training for peer mentors, as well as the overall importance of fostering quality relationships across all types of matches.