What are the benefits and drawbacks of self-disclosure in youth mentorships?

Dutton, H., Deane, K.L., & Bullen, P. (2021). Exploring the benefits and risks of mentor self-disclosure: relationship quality and ethics in youth mentoring. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1080/1177083X.2021.1951308

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Even though self-disclosure can have a significant impact on interpersonal relationships, not much is known about the positive and negative impact self-disclosure has on mentorships.
  • This study explores the potential risks and benefits of self-disclosure in mentoring relationships.
  • It also examines a) whether or not mentor self-disclosure correlates with mentoring relationship quality and b) what ethical problems mentors account for when deciding whether or not to disclose to their mentees.
  • Although mentors and mentees need to set boundaries in their relationships, having genuine and open mentors who disclose personal subjects can help establish closeness and trust in mentorships.
  • At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the power dynamics between mentees and mentors in youth mentoring. Because of the prevalence of various factors in this context (e.g. age difference), perceptions of the disclosure can differ.
  • Self-disclosure should not be an either/or option; this paper argues that there are ways to strategically make disclosures that can signal trust and closeness while simultaneously following ethical boundaries.
  • Mentoring programs should include topics that address disclosure in their training curriculums.
  • Although mentor self-disclosure was correlated with relationship quality for mentees, it was not correlated for mentors.
  • Mentors in the sample were aware of the ethical implications of their disclosure.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Evidence shows that self-disclosure plays an important role in developing and maintaining close interpersonal relationships. As self-disclosure remains largely unexamined in the context of interventions based on youth-adult helping relationships, little is known about the effects of mentor disclosure, or the ethics of using this communication technique. In this study, we used self-report questionnaire data from 51 mentoring pairs to investigate the effect of mentor self-disclosure on relationship quality in youth mentoring relationships, and consider the ethical challenges that arise when helping adults disclose to young people. Bivariate correlations showed mentor self-disclosure was significantly associated with relationship quality for mentees, but not mentors. Qualitative content analysis showed mentors were aware of how their disclosure may have ethical implications associated with the age and role-appropriateness of topics, contradictions between their own and the mentees’ family or cultural values, and the potential to negatively influence mentee behaviour. We consider these findings in a context of ethics in youth mentoring to raise questions about the intersection of disclosure, relationship quality, and safe mentoring practice.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study was designed to explore the benefits and risks of mentor self-disclosure – namely relationship quality and ethical issues – in youth mentoring relationships. In the first instance, this study provides preliminary evidence that mentor self-disclosure makes a positive contribution to mentee-reported relationship quality. We suggest that receiving disclosure is generally interpreted positively by mentees and thus influences their perception of the mentoring relationship (Liang et al. 2008; Ahrens et al. 2011; Varga and Deutsch 2016). Mentor self-disclosure may act as an invitation into the mentor’s world, to know and be known by the other (Dindia 2002), and young people may not experience such an invitation from other helping adults in their lives (e.g. teachers, coaches). We acknowledge that the findings of this study, including a significant linear relationship between disclosure and mentee reported relationship quality, would suggest that more self-disclosure equals higher relationship quality and therefore mentors should be encouraged to engage in more disclosure. However, we caution against this interpretation. It is possible that there is a ‘tipping point’ with disclosure, where mentor self-disclosure becomes a burden to mentees and begins to have a detrimental effect on relationship quality. The lack of empirical research on mentor disclosure means we cannot rule out this possibility, nor can we test it with the current dataset given its limited statistical power. It may also be the case that the mentors in our sample largely refrained from disclosing to this extent so it did not emerge from our data. We encourage future research in this space.

Broad encouragement of mentor self-disclosure should also be tempered by meaningful consideration of the ethics of disclosure. The highly contextual nature of disclosure means that there may be instances when disclosures that could promote relationship quality still ought not to be disclosed for broader ethical reasons, some of which were explicitly and implicitly mentioned by our participants. Many of the comments were, to some degree, about managing appropriate boundaries for disclosure. Mentors and other helping adults have an ethical obligation to establish and maintain boundaries in their relationships with young people (Rhodes et al. 2009). However, research has also shown that mentees appreciate mentors who are open and authentic with them, and disclosing on personal and even sensitive topics is one way mentors can demonstrate their feelings of trust and closeness with their mentees (Liang et al. 2008; Shier et al. 2020). In our study, several mentors mentioned how they carefully consider mentee requests for mentor disclosure, seemingly acknowledging the value of honesty and trust to relationship development. Avoiding or rejecting opportunities for such disclosure may inadvertently signal to mentees that their mentor does not trust them, or does not consider their relationship to be a space for open and honest sharing with one another (Murphy and Ord 2013). However, mentors also have legitimate concerns about disclosure. We saw that with regards to respecting mentee’s family and cultural contexts, thoughtfully considering the influence they have on their mentee, and even respecting their own emotions, such as shame. We argue that to best equip mentors to negotiate these tensions, self-disclosure should not be conceived as an either/or option: there are, for instance, ways to disclose in purposefully ambivalent ways which may signal trust and closeness, while avoiding detail that broaches ethical boundaries.

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