How mentors can help youth build satisfying, fulfilling lives - Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring

The importance of natural mentors for emerging adults

Hurd, N.M., Stoddard, S.A., Bauermeister, J.A., & Zimmerman, M.A.. (2014). Natural mentors, mental health, and substance use: Exploring pathways via coping and purpose. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84 (2), 190-200.


Emerging adulthood is a period from about 18 to 25, in which individuals are no longer dependent on their caregivers as they were in childhood and adolescence, yet have not yet taken on many of the social responsibilities of adulthood (Arnett, 2000). This developmental time may offer a period of great personal growth for individuals.  However, it likely includes a great amount of transitional stress as youth begin to take on new roles and responsibilities putting them at risk for developing mental health problems and/or increased substance use. Thus, the current study examines potential pathways through which relationships with natural mentors may have influenced both emerging adults’ psychological well-being and their substance use; specifically, examining whether natural mentor relationships decreased the amount of internalizing symptoms and substance use by the emerging adults.  The study also looked at the mentor role (familial vs. non-familial) and the amount of time  the mentor and mentee spent together on shared activities.


Participants consisted of 3,334 emerging adults drawn from the Virtual Networks Study, an online study examining emerging adults’ interpersonal relationships. Participants were asked whether or not they had a natural mentor (“is there an adult other than a parent or person who raised you who you go to for support and guidance i.e., a mentor?” ) and if so, how often they spend doing shared activities with their mentor.  Participants were also asked questions about their perceived coping ability,  or ability to handle stress; their sense of purpose in life; their depressive and anxiety symptoms; and their cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use. The emerging adults were also asked about their parental and peer support.


1,395 (42%) of the sample reported having a natural mentor

614 (44%) participants identified a familial mentor (e.g., aunt, uncle, grandparent)

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.42.59 AM781 (56%) identified a non-familial mentor (e.g., teacher, coach, religious leader, family friend)

  • The presence of a natural mentor , both familial and non-familial was related with more coping skills and a greater sense of life purpose, however, having a non-familial mentor predicted an even larger increase in coping ability and sense of purpose
  • Presence of a non-familial mentor predicted less cigarette use
  • Those participants who reported spending more time in shared activities with a natural mentor reported lower levels of alcohol use


Although, the study did not find direct relationships between having a natural mentor and emerging adults’ symptoms of anxiety and depression, findings do suggest that natural mentors promote improved coping abilities and a greater confidence in their mentee’s sense of life purpose. Specifically, non-familial mentors seemed to have an even greater influence than familial mentors, this may be because such mentors are different enough from emerging adults’ parents/caregivers that the mentees can maintain their autonomy when seeking advice and guidance .It’s also important to note that those who spend more time with their mentors had lower alcohol use; the study also suggests that non-familial mentors may be more likely to directly address the issues of substance use with their mentees.

Overall, the study illuminates that  “being able to effectively cope with transitional stressors and having a sense of life purpose may be critical assets for emerging adults that help insulate them from the negative effects of risks they face during this developmental period” (Compas et al., 2001).