New study on youth perception of mentor roles

Arbeit, M. R., Johnson, H. E., Grabowska, A. A., Mauer, V. A., & Deutsch, N. L. (2019). Leveraging relational metaphors: An analysis of non-parental adult roles in response to youth needs. Youth & Society.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Note of Interest: Using qualitative interviews, this study examines how youths perceive mentoring relationships with non-parental individuals can help fulfill their personal needs. The study was conducted with twenty-seven young people over the span of three years. Results of the study highlighted three different kinds of youth needs: adult mentors that behaved like coach figures, adult mentors that behaved like friends, and adult figures that behaved like parental figures.


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract): 

The present study takes a strength-based approach to understand how young people’s individual needs shape their relationships with significant non-parental adults across adolescence. The analyses drew from qualitative interviews with 27 youth across five time-points (3 years). Three types of youth needs were identified and labeled using metaphors that refer to other prominent relationships in youth lives: coach-like adults were providing help toward a specific achievement or skill development, friend-like adults were providing positive youth-focused companionship, and parent-like adults were nurturing a budding sense of self amid a plethora of life challenges. Each of these sets of youth needs was further examined through thematic analysis and case studies. Implications for future research and models of effective youth mentorship are discussed.


Implications (Reprinted from the Abstract):

Coach-like VIPs provided help toward a specific achievement or skill development by providing practical help to support competence, encouragement to support morale, and positive feedback to support confidence. Youth spoke very positively about these VIPs and felt they were good people who also liked them in return. These relationships were focused on the specific ways in which the adult was helping the youth, and the youth participants did not mention wanting or expecting other forms of closeness or support. These findings illustrate that mentors do not need to be saviors—mentors can focus on skill building and scaffolding youth achievement and need not be more than that to make meaningful contributions to youth lives (Albright, Hurd, & Hussain, 2017). Some researchers studying formal mentoring have challenged the idea that a close, intimate relationship is a necessary ingredient for effectiveness in all youth mentoring relationships (McQuillin, Strait, Smith, & Ingram, 2015). Our findings support the idea that some youth may need and want this more focused instrumental support.

Friend-like VIPs offered youth-focused companionship by providing a reliable presence, a new perspective, and acceptance free from pressure to impress. Many youth in this category struggled with their same-age peers and were grateful for a social connection in which they could relate closely with someone and find a sense of themselves as social people. Future research can address whether and how these friend-like VIP relationships provide opportunities for youth to build social skills that help them with same-age peer friendships or provide a bridge until youth regain access to supportive same-age peer friendships. These findings can be understood in relation to research on age-appropriate forms of mutual sharing between youth and adults (Lester, Goodloe, Johnson, & Deutsch, 2019) and how adults can establish and navigate personal boundaries as they build intimate connections with young people (Rhodes, Liang, & Spencer, 2009). These findings also reflect previous research on youth relationships with staff in after-school programs, where many youth reference the “peer-like” qualities of adult staff. Importantly, youth are able to distinguish staff relationships from true peer relationships, noting that the staff are still adults but able to serve in a liminal space, providing some of the benefits of being simultaneously adult and peer-like (Hirsch, 2005).

Parent-like VIPs were nurturing a budding sense of self amid a plethora of life challenges by providing guidance with which to grow as a person, a space in which to feel connected, and a foundation from which to feel supported. Youth in this category needed a high level of support to supplement support from their parents, which in many cases was reduced due to challenges in their parents’ lives (e.g., separation/divorce) or difficulties in their own relationships with one or both parents. Parent-like VIPs made themselves physically and emotionally available in multiple ways, giving a lot of their time and energy to their relationships with youth. Further research is needed to understand the perspective of adults in these parent-like roles and how these adults interact with a young person’s actual parents. It would be important to distinguish in this line of research between a non-parental adult playing a supplementary parenting role versus actually needing to become a surrogate parent. In one case, the primary parenting relationship remains intact; in the other, the primary parenting relationship may be characterized by abuse, neglect, absence, death, or other fundamental threats to the parents’ ability to be the primary caregiver. Within this study, none of the youth participants reported parent-like VIPs who permanently took on the role of primary caregiver.


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