There’s no substitute for someone who gets you

d7b5cc80e10115275705fa01a39d495aby Laura Yoviene and Jean Rhodes

We like people who “get” us–those friends and family members who seem to understand who we are at an intuitive level and yet love and appreciate us all the same. Students gravitate toward teachers, guidance counselors, and other adults who get them, which creates opportunities for these caring adults to influence students’ career choices and life paths. In fact, the usual way of asking about mentors, especially natural mentors, may not be fully capturing young people’s experience with caring adults. They may be unfamiliar with what a mentor is, associate it only with formal mentoring programs, or feel that the everyday adults in their lives do not merit this somewhat lofty designation. Moreover, youth may feel closest to the adults whom they perceive like and truly understand (i.e., get) them. Indeed, in a qualitative study investigating the processes that underpin successful mentoring relationships, Spencer (2006) noted the importance of mentees feeling that their mentor “understands or gets them, knows who they are, and cares about them.” This notion of getting is intriguing as it shifts the perspective from youths’ admiration of potentially more distant adults to youths’ appraisal of how well the adults in their daily lives know and like them. It also aligns with reward theory, which posits that we like those people with whom we have reinforcing interactions. “Getting” can further be described as a combination of warmth and showing interest,  both of which are dimensions of developmental relationships (Search Institute, 2014). Trevarthen (2001) describes the experience of being meaningful to someone important as a core need throughout life. Furthermore, interacting with someone who is thought to understand and like us has been shown to contribute to greater engagement in one’s goals (Rook & Underwood, 2000).

A focus on “getting” also makes sense from a developmental perspective, given issues of acceptance and rejection are particularly salient during the adolescent years. As adolescents gain greater autonomy from their parents, other adults take on increased importance as role models and alternative attachment figures (Allen & Hauser, 1996). A study by Karcher, Davidson, Rhodes, & Herrera (2010) highlights middle adolescents’ sensitivity to non-parent adult appraisals. Adolescents who were paired with mentors who held more negative pre-match beliefs about youth in general showed fewer positive outcomes than those paired with mentors who were more positively disposed toward youth.

Based on such research, we recently conducted a study in which we explored whether youths’ feeling of being gotten by a key adult can lead to a range of positive outcomes (Yoviene, Rhodes, & Scales, 2015). We drew on data from the Teen Voice study (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2011; Scales, Roehlkepartain, & Benson, 2010) to explore youths’ relationships with key adults outside of their families. Feeling “gotten” was shown to relate to a range of positive developmental outcomes including grades, school effort, purpose, and civic engagement, providing a potentially more assessable way of capturing close relationships between adolescents and nonparental adults. Adolescents identified a range of adults who got them, and levels of perceived relational engagement were positively associated with positive youth outcomes and supportive relationships.

The most common “getters” were teachers and aunts/uncles, followed by religious or youth group leaders, grandparents, and coaches. Past studies of natural mentors have resulted in relatively lower rates of teacher nominations (e.g., Dubois & Silverthorn, 2005). Indeed, nearly a quarter (23%) of youth in the current study felt that at least one teacher got them.  Surprisingly, feeling gotten by any adult was positively associated with GPA, whereas having a mentor showed no such association. These positive outcomes speak to the important role that teachers and other school staff may play in helping youth feel engaged in school and promoting academic success. Along these lines, psychologist Robert Pianta and colleagues have identified the key qualities of successful teacher-student relationships: the ability to read a youth’s emotional and social signals accurately and respond accordingly; to offer warmth and acceptance; to offer assistance when necessary; and to enact appropriate structures and limits for the child (Pianta, Hamre, & Stuhlman, 2003). And the high occurrence of aunts and uncles converges with past studies of natural mentoring relationships that categorize these extended family members as playing an important role. Aunts and uncles fill an interesting niche in a youth’s life; not quite the parents yet still sharing a familial bond.

We found that adult who get youth show a combination of attunement and opportunity. Adults conveyed attunement by listening to youth, being dependable, and remembering things from past conversations. These adults were trustworthy and reliable, which is key to building trust and they also incorporated humor. The opportunity dimension captured a distinct, yet complementary aspect of relational engagement in which the adults convey to youth that they believe in them enough to give them special privileges and hold them to higher standards. This is in line with the concept of wise feedback, in which youth learn to attribute critical feedback in school to their teachers’ high standards and belief in their potential, resulting in improvements in their quality of work (Yeager et al., 2014).

Based on our preliminary findings, we recommend that programs consider asking young people if there are any adults who “get” them. If you would like more information about the “gets” items, please contact UMB doctoral candidate Laura Yoviene, M.A.