Research identifies three keys to enhancing mentoring relationships

keychain-633543_1280Futch Ehrlich, V. A., Deutsch, N. L., Fox, C. V., Johnson, H. E., & Varga, S. M. (2016). Leveraging relational assets for adolescent development: A qualitative investigation of youth–adult “connection” in positive youth development. Qualitative Psychology3(1), 59.


Summarized by Rachel Rubin



Research has documented the many positive impacts of youth-adult relationships. However, little research has investigated the processes of these relationships. That is, we do not yet know how these relationships form, how they aid in youth’s development, and how youth make sense of them.  This study uses a development systems approach, one that looks at both individual and environmental level assets that contribute to youth’s positive development, to explore the concept of connection in these youth-adult, non-parental relationships. Connection is one of these developmental assets, on an individual and environmental level, that promotes positive youth development (PYD).

Most research has theorized connection as a quantifiable asset as opposed to a developmental process, which may limit us from understanding and utilizing all aspects of connection and how it can promote youth’s development. Although we know the importance of youth-adult relationships and have some knowledge about the process, we do not have as much information on the formation of close and connected youth-adult relationships outside of the formal-mentoring literature. This study seeks to understand how youth feel connected to important adults in their lives, what facilitates this connection, the different perspectives of youth on these relationships, and areas for improvement in facilitating connection in programs and interventions.


This paper presents findings from Wave 1 of a longitudinal mixed-methods study of youth-adult relationships. A selected subsample of youth, who indicated having a “significant adult” in their lives, was chosen to be followed for 3.5 years. These participants were 40 youth (Mage=13.9 years, 57% Female) from schools, after-school programs, and community based programs within 25 miles of a southeastern research university. These youth identified as 78% White, 14% African American, 5% Hispanic, and 3% as Other. Fifteen percent of the sample were eligible for free or reduced-lunch at school. Participants completed a screening survey, an additional survey, and participated in an interview. The screening survey included demographic information, information on significant adults in the youths’ lives, and scales about youth’s relational styles and social support networks. The next survey included several psychosocial scales, including a PYD scale that focused on connection. The interviews sought to understand whether youth had important non-parental adults in their lives (named VIPs), who these adults were in relation to the youth, and what these relationships were like. In addition, youth completed a visual social network map during the interview. All interviews lasted about an hour.

The research team identified themes that were common across interviews and also looked at specific parts of interviews that were important in protocol development. The team used mixed-methods analysis to pair survey and interview data for each participant. Participants were placed into “High,” “Medium,” or “Low” groups based on their quantitative closeness scores.


The authors found that higher connected youth (based on scores on the quantitative measure) had lower reported anxiety and relationship avoidance while lower connected youth had higher relationship anxiety and avoidance. In addition, female youth were found to be more likely than male youth to talk about closeness as well as more likely to talk about conflict, negativity, and disconnection in their relationships with adults.

In qualitative analyses, several themes were identified as facilitating or maintaining the youth-adult connection. Shared interests or traits was one theme that all youth noted as being foundational in their connection with VIPs. This shared interest set the VIP apart from other adults in the youths’ lives and provided an opportunity for bidirectional exchanges in conversations. Another theme that was identified as facilitating connections between youth and adults was VIPs as boundary crossers. Adults who went beyond their primary role (e.g., teachers who initiated conversations about non-school issues) were the ones who formed these close connections with youth.

In comparing the “High” and “Low” groups, the authors found that there were differences in frequencies of one code: “initiation of the relationship.” Looking back in the interviews, among the highly connected group, both youth and adults initiated frequently. Adults showed investment in the relationship with their initiations and youth showed how much they valued these relationships. Although in the low connected group there were many examples of youth and adult initiation, there were also more examples of lack of initiation. A lack of initiation from adults tended to show youth that they were not a priority. It is important to note that there were highly anxious, avoidant, and less connected youth (based on quantitative measures) who, not following the trend of the findings, still formed close relationships with adults. In some of these cases, youth felt that for once they had an adult’s undivided attention or youth reported having few but strong connections with adults.



This mixed-methods analysis investigated youth-adult relationships to better understand connection from a PYD perspective. From these findings, we know that connection is an essential aspect of close youth-adult relationships, there is nuance in the facilitation and maintenance of connection, and role expectations and boundaries are key aspects of relationship formation. It is important to note that context matters in the development of youth-adult relationships and connection. In addition, in contexts in which shared interests are not readily apparent, adults need to make interests explicit to facilitate connections with youth.  Moreover, mixed-methods and qualitative analyses enhance our understanding of connection and should be used in future research to clarify the nuances of connection in youth-adult relationships.


To read the full article, click here.