Why do some mentoring relationships “click” while others fail?

by Jean Rhodes

Even the most caring, consistent mentors may struggle to connect with certain youth, while other matches just seem to click from the start. Researchers have found that the quality of adult-youth relationships is conditioned by a wide range of individual, family, and contextual influences, including:

1.  Interpersonal History

Children and adolescents who have enjoyed healthy relationships with their parents may more easily be drawn to adults as role models and confidants.  Soucy and Larose (2019) found evidence that the positive effects of mentors were stronger among those youths who reported having higher levels of security in their relationships with their parents.

2. Social Competencies

Youth who are better able to regulate their emotions and who have positive temperaments and/or other engaging attributes may be primed for higher levels of involvement with adults than are peers who lack these attributes.

3. Developmental Stage

The mentee’s age may also affect the nature and course of a mentoring relationship. For example, whereas early adolescents who are beginning to struggle with identity issues may wish to engage in abstract conversations with their mentors, children whose levels of cognitive sophistication are less advanced may benefit more from structured activities (Keating, 1990). In addition, adolescents on the brink of adulthood may be less interested in establishing emotional ties with mentors, instead gravitating to peers and vocational skill-building activities. Older adolescents tend to be more peer oriented than their younger counterparts and less likely to sustain their involvement in structured mentoring programs. Indeed, researchers have found that relationships with older adolescents are characterized by lower levels of closeness , heightened risk for termination during any given month (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002), and shorter duration than those with younger youths. A mentor who is attuned to his or her mentee’s developmental stage, and adjusts to it accordingly can create an optimal stage-environment fit  and are better positioned to meet the child’s developmental needs.

5. Program Practices

Programs that offer adequate infrastructure increase the likelihood that relationships can endure difficult periods (DuBois et al., 2002; Rhodes, 2002). In fact, program practices that support the mentor and relationship (i.e., training for mentors, offering structured activities for mentors and youth, having high expectations for frequency of contact, and monitoring of overall program implementation) produce stronger positive effects. These practices, which speak to a program’s ability to not only match mentors and youths but also sustain those matches, converge with the beneficial practices identified by other researchers. Unfortunately, moving youths off long wait lists can sometimes take priority over creating high-quality matches. Even among the growing number of programs with careful recruitment, screening, and matching, a relatively smaller proportion devote themselves to in-depth training of volunteers or ongoing support to the mentors. Cost, combined with a general reluctance to make demands on volunteers, is the primary obstacle to providing more sustained involvement and infrastructure beyond the initial match.

6. Family Context

The likelihood of a child’s or adolescent’s forming strong ties with mentors may be affected by a range of processes in the family, including the encouragement and opportunities that parents provide for the development of such ties. Families characterized by sensitivity to others’ ideas and needs and open expression of views are more likely to encourage adolescents to become involved in positive relationships outside the family (Cooper, Grotevant, & Condon, 1983). With specific relevance to mentoring, children and adolescents with more supportive parental relationships and higher levels of shared family decision making have been found to be more likely to report natural mentors. Parents who actively cultivate connections and channel their children to community-based recreational and social programs also may increase the likelihood that their children will form beneficial relationships with adults beyond the nuclear family . Mentoring programs that reach out to parents tend to have greater success in shaping youth outcomes. Other family-related factors, including stability and mobility, can facilitate or hinder the establishment and maintenance of strong ties.

7. Neighborhood Ecology

Researchers have observed that extracurricular activities and supportive relationships with adults tend to be more beneficial to adolescents raised in urban poverty than to lower risk youths, who encounter more supportive adults in their everyday lives. Indeed, neighborhood characteristics and norms (i.e., neighborhood effects) can influence the availability of caring, informal adult ties as well as the willingness of volunteers to genuinely connect with children and adolescents. Changing family and marital patterns, crowded schools, and less cohesive communities have dramatically reduced the availability of caring adults in the lives of youths (Putnam, 2000).Even when they are available, however, fewer American adults are willing to offer support and guidance to unrelated youths. Parents have come to be considered solely responsible for their children, so the involvement of other adults is often met with suspicion and discomfort (Scales, 2003). Indeed, words like clergy, uncles, and even neighbors no longer simply conjure images of front-porch warmth and goodwill; they also evoke parental anxiety and confusion about the boundaries of trust and safety. Similarly, as mentoring programs increasingly accommodate volunteers’ busy schedules, they have eased requirements for relationship commitment and intensity. The result in some cases has been the formation of perfunctory ties that resemble, but share little in common with, the long-term community-based relationships from which they have evolved . In essence, changing family and neighborhood configurations, busy schedules, and shifting norms regarding adult involvement in the lives of youths have limited the likelihood that youths will engage in the sorts of caring relationships with mentors that can lead to developmental change.