Mentors: Who, When, and Where?

Mentoring programs are popping up around the country, as people start to recognize the impact these relationships can have. But what are the qualities of a successful mentor-mentee relationship? Are there specific places or people or times that can be most beneficial to youth? If mentors matter so much to kids, how can parents and caregivers help connect their teens to positive mentoring experiences?

What qualities should you look for in a mentoring program?

You can find mentoring programs in afterschool settings, at community programs, faith-based organizations, or youth services. While mentoring programs often seem to work no matter the setting, community and youth-service based programs have been shown to offer the greatest impact. This could be related to offering opportunities to share experiences outside of the teens’ commonly frequented places (e.g., a school) where youth spend time. It makes the mentorship relationship unique from other daily experiences.

If you are looking for a program that offers mentoring for your child, there are several things you should consider. Good programs ensure that mentors have been screened and trained. Most have a “matching” system for mentors and mentees that make it more likely that they’ll be a good match for one another. In addition, quality programs usually provide ongoing guidance and support for the mentors themselves. These features make it more likely that mentors have not only made a commitment to the relationship, but have been equipped with the skills to offer your teen the support they need.

Child Trends, a national research organization, recently published a report evaluating some of the most popular mentoring programs offered across the country. A copy of the report, including information on the effectiveness of these, can be found here.

What should the mentor-mentee relationship focus on?

The best mentor-mentee relationships are those that focus on relationship building. They encourage listening, trust, openness, and exploration of interests and skills. They offer new experiences and encourage youth to try different things, be silly, have fun, and explore outside their comfort zone.

Mentoring that is specifically geared towards changing or preventing undesirable behavior (e.g., drug use) has not been shown to work well. It is likely that youth are hearing these messages in many other parts of their lives, and expect less “instruction” and more interaction from their mentors.

When should you look for a mentor?

Mentors have been shown to positively impact youth of all ages – even as early as elementary school. Middle school aged children seem benefit the most. This could be related to the length of time with which the relationship lasts. They are old enough to understand and appreciate the benefits of the relationship, and still have plenty of years left to use it (whereas high school and the later teen years are already close to independence and adulthood).

What makes a GOOD mentor?

A good mentor has things in common with their mentee. While most positive role models have something to offer youth, it is likely that a teen will feel more comfortable and interested in a relationship with someone with whom they have certain characteristics and interests in common. Often this means that mentors are the same gender as their teen. In general girls and boys have been found to enjoy different types of activities with their mentors. While girls emphasize the importance of the emotional and conversational piece of their relationship with a mentor, boys tend to focus on the shared activities they engage in with their mentors. However, other commonalities can prove just as important and beneficial. For example, a mentor can share a school or job experience that interests your youth. Perhaps they have similar interests such as sports, music or computers. These connections are especially important at the beginning of a relationship as it provides common ground on which to share experiences, relate to each other and build trust.

A good mentor is a good listener. Mentors should be able to listen non-judgmentally to youth and offer genuine support. This means not being critical of feelings or behaviors, but understanding and caring about the experiences of the youth. In fact, one of the most common “strengths” youth cite about their mentors is feeling like they can “tell them anything.”

A good mentor shares experiences. Mentors should try to facilitate the development of new skills or enhance existing interests or skills. Teens are exploring. They are often interested in things that they may feel are “uncool” or that they are “incapable” of doing. A mentor can set the pace, lead the way and also be there to support them through the learning process. By “going first” mentors send the message that youth can feel free to try as well. Mentors can also show that they value the interests and accomplishments of youth by allowing their mentee to guide the mentor in exploring a new experience and learning from the young person as well.

A good mentor puts their mentee’s safety first. Mentors should be equipped with the knowledge and skills of how to best keep your teen safe. This could mean that a mentor does not set up or go along with risky activities, knows what activities are age-appropriate, and maintains the focus on the needs of the mentee. This also means knowing when it is appropriate to either keep or break confidentiality in the best interests of the youths’ safety.

Mentors need to make a commitment to the relationship. Consistency and a long-term commitment to the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most important aspects of mentoring. While mentors can have positive impacts from shorter-term relationships, most research suggests that commitments of over a year yield the best results. Teens take time to warm up to new people. A teen might wonder why a stranger has an interest in them. They might be hesitant to invest in getting to know this mentor if they think they are going to leave. Having a commitment of at least a year ensures your teen that their mentor is going to stick around, and also provides ample time to build up trust within the relationship.

There are many things that contribute to a successful mentor-mentee relationship. It is important to talk your teen about their expectations from a mentor and what kinds of things they would like to get out of such a relationship. Having this conversation with the mentor is also important, so that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.

Remember, teens should be a part of the process. Make sure they WANT a mentor, understand what a mentor is for, have a voice in what activities, schedules and commitments are made within the relationship–and, that they are having fun!