We all know that mentoring relationships affect different youth in different ways. Even the most caring, consistent mentors may struggle to connect with certain youth, while other matches click from the start. Researchers have found that the quality of effectiveness of the relationship on a given mentee is conditioned by a wide range of individual, family, and contextual influences.

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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.

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).

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.

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.

Relationship duration

The benefits of mentoring appear to accrue over a relatively long period of time. Evidence for the importance of relationship duration has emerged from the BBBSA studies of CBM and SBM programs cited previously (Grossman & Rhodes, 2002; Herrera et al., 2007). These findings are consistent with other studies, as well as meta-analyses (e.g., DuBois et al. 2011).

Developmental stage

The mentee’s age may also affect the nature and course of a mentoring relationship.  Early adolescents who are beginning to struggle with identity issues may wish to engage in abstract conversations with their mentors, where children who have a lower level of cognitive sophistication may benefit from more structured activities.  Older adolescents may be less interested in establishing emotional ties with mentors, gravitating to peers and vocational skill-building instead.  Older adolescents tend to have stronger relationships with their peers than their younger counterparts, and they are 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 and Rhodes, 2002), and shorter duration than those with children or early adolescents.  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.

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.

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. In such cases, the relationship may focus more on the acquisition of skills and the advancement of critical thinking than on emotional issues.

However, those who have experienced unsatisfactory or difficult parental ties may initially resist the overtures of a caring adult, but over time develop more intense bonds with their mentors that help to satisfy their social and emotional needs. Mentoring relationships also may serve to compensate for absent relationships.