September 21, 2018

OPINION: Youth With High Stress Need Mentors Carefully Chosen to Match With Them

Friends of the Children featured in Youth Today.

Originally published on Youth Today.

By Elizabeth Raposa

In recent decades, youth mentoring programs have grown exponentially in popularity and have received increasing support from both private and public sources of funding. These programs have helped ensure that more youth have access to a close relationship with a caring adult, which can provide a wide array of benefits, including improved relationships with parents, teachers and peers, greater school engagement, reduced depression and fewer instances of delinquent or aggressive behavior.

Yet, despite this generally positive influence of mentoring on youth development, placement in a mentoring relationship is not universally helpful for all youth. In fact, research shows that the effects of mentoring relationships appear to vary widely across youth, with some benefitting little. For example, youth who enter mentoring programs with more stressors in their home environments, such as family conflict, parental incarceration and poverty, and youth who show more behavioral risk factors, like social difficulties or academic problems, tend to have shorter and lower-quality mentoring relationships than other youth (Schwartz et al., 2011).

This means that often these higher-risk youth are not reaping the same benefits across development from mentoring relationships as other youth. Even more concerning, some youth might actually be doing worse after taking part in a mentoring program, since mentoring relationships that end prematurely can lead to poorer functioning among youth. So youth who enter mentoring programs with high levels of stress or behavioral problems, expecting to find help from a nonparental adult, might in reality struggle to connect with a mentor and end up more depressed or disengaged at school when yet another relationship falls through.

The good news is that certain mentors appear capable of offsetting the risks associated with working with a youth who has been identified as having a challenging background or problem behavior. Some programs have been designed specifically to pair committed mentors with children facing extraordinary risks.


For example, Friends of the Children successfully recruits and trains salaried mentors to work with children deemed to be at the highest risk nationwide. This program, and others like it, have tailored their mentor training and support to ensure that mentors are capable of trouble-shooting difficulties when forming a rapport with their mentees, and that these mentors are also motivated to form consistent, long-term relationships that typically last multiple years.