The untapped potential of “natural mentoring”

Informal support from known and trusted adults makes an enormous difference

By Levi van Dam, Scientific American

In the United States, there are more than 5,000 mentoring organizations that facilitate “stranger to stranger” matches that support young people during the challenging period of adolescence—but only 5 percent of the participants are successfully matched with a volunteering mentor.

But there is an alternative system that has been around for millennia: natural mentoring. In Greek mythology, it is Odysseus’ friend and adviser Mentor who takes care of his son when he departs to Troy. Today, natural mentors might be uncles, aunts, neighbors, teachers, sports coaches and acquaintances, on whom young people naturally fall back when times are difficult. And the positive impact can be tremendous.

An “arena of comfort” is a calming and accepting environment or supportive relationship that gives you the chance to relax and rejuvenate so that potentially stressful experiences and changes in another area can be endured or accepted. Natural mentoring relationships are such arenas of comfort, and they differ from relationships with parents. They fit in with the process of maturing: adolescents reexamine contact with their parental figures, looking for a more equal relationship in order to become more autonomous. Natural mentors constitute an emotional support and a shelter for young people. They offer a cultural and normative framework and may provide practical support, such as temporary accommodation, or help, such as writing an application letter.

In working with young people who have severe mental health issues, natural mentors have become an important resource during the last decade. For example, the Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM) approach supports young people in the process of identifying, recruiting and maintaining relationships with potential natural mentors from within their communities. Longitudinal research into people who have dropped out or been expelled from high school indicates that this intuitive approach results in better academic, vocational and behavioral outcomes, including higher educational levels, longer time employed, higher earnings and fewer arrests.

According to one person participating in the program: ‘‘My mentoring relationship made me a better person. Because out of the respect I had for him, he helped me to respect other people… And that was a big step for me, because I went through a lot, it felt like everybody was stabbing me in my back, and then he came along and he was, he was more than a mentor, he was a friend.’’

In the Netherlands, the YIM approach has shown promising results in preventing out-of-home placement of vulnerable young people. in 90 percent of the cases at-home treatment was sufficient, and despite the expectations 80 percent of these at-risk youths successfully nominated a natural mentor. As one mentor put it: “I had goosebumps when she asked me. This was so cool, of course I want to help!”

A recent follow-up study, performed more than 11 years later investigating young people at risk for suicide who nominated natural mentors from within their community, reveals that these youths show significantly lower rates of committing suicide, among the most prevalent causes of death among adolescents in the Western world. The results indicate an untapped potential, but is natural mentoring only beneficial for the young?

In a meta-analytic study, we examined the effect of natural mentoring relationships on more than 60,000 young people, working together with colleagues from Utrecht University, and the international mentoring expert Jean Rhodes from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Subjects were asked the simple question: “Is there another adult to whom you can go for support and advice?”

More than 75 percent of them turn out to have natural mentors, and the subjects achieve better school results and have fewer psychological issues than young people without a natural mentor. We must be cautious when interpreting these results; since all research is correlational, it is unknown if the respondents benefit from their natural mentors or if they simply have the social skills to acquire and maintain supportive relationships.

However, the positive effect holds true even for those who are confronted with problems at an early age (teenage motherhood, homelessness, foster care, parents with an alcohol addiction). In fact, if the mentoring relationship is good, the effect of a natural mentor is comparable with the impact of formal mentoring programs but also with the effect of a protocoled psychological treatment for troubled young people. Whereby you can rightly ask the question: which is more effective, therapy or a natural mentor?

On top of this comes the aspect of duration: stranger-to-stranger mentoring mostly lasts for one year, whereas natural mentoring relationships last on average for nine years. So, are all natural mentoring experiences positive? No, families also indicate it can create new conflicts in their already vulnerable social networks. For example, parents can feel threatened through the involvement of this important nonparental adult. Or, as one 18-year-old puts it: “It was obvious that between my mother and the mentor a clear line needs to be drawn, indicating my mom is and stays the parent. This was necessary because it was difficult for my mom that I was about to express my feelings to another adult. It felt like stepping into her territory.”

That’s why schools and professional caregivers should include natural mentors in their policies. And societal awareness of this phenomenon is necessary to identify potential pitfalls earlier, but also to celebrate this special relationship.

In her book Becoming, Michelle Obama makes a plea for more mentoring relationships, as does the flamboyant comedian Russell Brand in his latest book, Mentors. Both view mentoring as the type of relationship that helps one to continue to develop as a person. Mentoring can be easier than the current ‘stranger-to-stranger’ mentoring initiatives: look around and reach out to someone from within your community. Deepen your roots in order to flourish.


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