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Mentoring youth?



A few years ago, through Big Brothers Big Sisters, I became a mentor to a 16 year old girl in residential care. It continued for two years and I felt it was a great experience for both of us. Unfortunately we lost touch after I had to move to a different country and I often wondered if, overall, the loss of the relationship could have caused more harm than good to the girl. I notice that there have been some studies raising doubts that mentoring youth makes a lasting difference and suggesting that it can occasionally have negative effects. I would be very interested to hear everyone's views and experiences.

Bridget Mason

I honestly think it is how you mentor them. I was a big sister as well and was fortunate to have the support of her mother in the relationship, with her support I feel I was a successful mentor. I have had to move to another province but her awesome mother saved up money and sent her here to visit twice. I haven't seen her in a few years but we keep in contact via Facebook it's been 12 years now.

In my current youth care role I am a sort of mentor for youth transitioning into independent living. My role to the youth is clearly defined and the expectations of the youth are clearly defined. It is up to the youth entirely to meet those expectations and my role/goal is to gently (and sometimes not ha ha) nudge that youth toward those goals. We try very hard with youth to not lose them from the program and even then a lot of them still come back to us for guidance or to visit, whether they were successful in the program or not.

So I would say it all depends on what you expect from and define the relationship and if you can get the family behind you it could be a successful mentorship.

Mentors are not meant to last forever!

Hi Bridget: The best source for information on research regarding youth mentoring is Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership at

You mentioned that you thought there were studies that raised doubts about mentoring youth has any lasting value or may even have a negative impact on youth.

As a person familiar with youth mentoring research, and as an active youth mentoring program developer, I can tell you that there are no such results from studies of mentoring programs that follow accepted mentoring guidelines. There might be mixed outcomes, but definitely not negative outcomes.

Maybe there is confusion about some mentoring “programs” that have produced negative outcomes because the so-called mentors have engaged in inappropriate, abusive or exploitive behaviour. The “programs” are typically not really programs in that they don’t attend to the key factors needed to make them a program.

Another way to look at long-term and lasting differences, is to ask successful adults today what helped them get through adversity or tough times when they were younger. In most cases they are going to say an adult in their life who cared about them, spent time with them, and respected them


Rey Carr

Personally, I would trust anything Rey says about mentoring.

Thom  Garfat

Hi everyone,

I realize I am not saying anything new here, by restating the powerful influences relationships have on youth . The literature on youth defines the the 5 Cs necessary for positive development outcomes; confidence, competence, caring, character and connection (John Hopkins, Bloomberg Center for Adolescent Health). Providing the opportunities for these 5 C's to develop is pivotol to achieving these. Moreover, the relationship between mentor and youth. I couldn't help but wonder Bridget if the studies you read that identified poor outcomes were based on a poor mismatch between youth and mentor. I would be interested in reading about these if you could share the links.

Mentoring like any other role in working with youth is an art of the relationship (Gary Landreth wrote about this quite eloguently in his book on Play therapy: The art of the relationship 1991). To define ones role that empowers as opposed to giving advice or directing; attending as opposed to multitasking; asking questions for the youth to realize the risks and benefits of their actions as opposed to focusing on their "bad" decisions requires a commitment to this relational experiential process.

There are plentiful opportunities to mentor youth beyond their discharge from our care, yet these opportunities are often frowned upon by agency managers. I have never truly understood this. Perhaps this is one of the factors that may lead to poor outcomes in youth mentoring. If youth come to believe that their time with us; our time is limited to a certain number of sessions or certain number of days, what message do they receive from this? I cannot tell you the countless times I have heard that to maintain a relationship beyond the discharge date is not appropriate. Again please help me to understand this. If you were the one supportive caring adult the youth experienced you as could you not maintain this?

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the intensity of the relationship be maintained, this becomes difficult, however I wonder about the opportunities for maintaining a connection , a mentorship if you will. Perhaps not everyone is up to this, it does require a commitment. This then points to the importance of establishing boundaries for the new relationship, mentorship to occur. It also points to the importance of defining those limits of the relationship at the forefront and in connecting the youth to new opportunities beyond your involvement.

I realize again that I am not sharing anything that others have not heard before, yet I cannot help but wonder if these points identified above have played a role in the studies poor outcomes. Perhaps this is my way of making sense of the insensible.

I am curious however about others experiences of assuming a mentoring role with children or youth beyond discharge from counseling or residence. If not experiences you have to share, then what thoughts do you have about this?

Donicka Budd

Hi all,

Interesting comments from everyone. Donicka, I have the same thoughts about making the limits of the relationship clear from the beginning, and Big Brothers Big Sisters does stipulate at least a year of mentoring, which the youth know from the outset. However, several of the people I trained with beforehand let their designated youth down very early on. As one of the studies I read mentions, this seems to happen quite often:

'Some youth and mentors interviewed had been abandoned by their partners who never returned phone calls or simply never showed up for a scheduled visit. Youth and mentors alike described feeling disappointed and one youth had decided not to be matched with another mentor, despite his initial enthusiasm for the program.'

Below are links to some of the studies I came across which mention negative aspects. Certainly a poor mismatch between mentor and youth is one of them. If the relationship works it is invaluable I'm sure and if some contact can be maintained after the initial period that's great, but I wonder how often that actually occurs. As you say, it's a big commitment.

Bridget Mason


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