The purpose of this investigation was to begin to understand the nature of nonkin natural mentoring relationships among older youth in the process of exiting foster care from the perspectives of the transitioning youth themselves. Analyses of youth responses to a series of open-ended questions revealed information about who their natural mentors were, the roles these adults had played in their lives, some of the qualities of the adults and of the relationships and the many different forms of support the youth had experienced in the context of these important relationships.
Natural mentors in this study represented a variety of roles in the youth’s lives but were predominately friends of the family, professionals and various community members. These types of natural mentors, in addition to extended family, were reported in another study of natural mentors in the lives of transitioning youth in the Northeast (Collins et al., in press
). Some of the salient qualities of the mentors included their understanding and non-judgmental nature which made them easy to talk to and the directness of their communication and advice. The fact that many mentors shared, and had shared with the youth, experiences of similar challenge and hardship in their own lives seemed to render these adults as especially trustworthy and credible sources of support. Some of these youth also emphasized the importance of the enduring nature of their ties with these important adults through their comments about how these mentors knew a great deal about their past experiences and had been there with them through various transitions in their lives.
The importance of similarities in life experiences stood out throughout the youth’s responses. These older youth appreciated mentors who they felt were “like them” in personality, that liked to do the same things, and that have been through similar situations or struggles coming up in the world. It was particularly important to youth that natural mentors understood what they had been through and the youth’s statements revealed that this was possible when mentors had shared experiences such as engagement with public systems themselves (e.g., jail, foster care). The data from this study suggests that those developing mentoring initiatives for older youth in foster care may want to encourage and support relationships that develop naturally among foster care youth and the important adults in their lives, as many of them have had similar experiences as them or have grown up having had similar life experiences. If program developers initiate formal mentoring programs for this population, these data suggest that it would be prudent to recruit adults that have similar life experiences, particularly those that have had some type of involvement themselves with public systems of care, as this seems to matter to older youth. This study suggests that this quality may make it easier for older system-involved youth to relate with and listen to these adults. Having another person that is older than them and has lived through similar tragedies was important to them and it came up repetitively in this study. While only speculation, having had similar difficult experiences may minimize shame and lead to youth bringing more of themselves into the relationships.
Important qualities of the mentoring relationship included trust, consistency, empathy, and authenticity on the part of both the mentors and the youth. These youth’s descriptions of their natural mentoring relationships revealed that many of these older youth perceived their natural mentors as adults who can
be trusted, in contrast to other adults they have encountered, and can provide them with a sense of feeling cared for and even loved. Although the present study only asked six questions and only heard one perspective on a relationship involving two individuals, youth statements such as “I had no one to talk to but I trusted her” and “When I go to her with something I know it's private. I know I can trust her” strongly suggest that the older youth in this study feel that their natural mentors were particularly trustworthy. In a study of the relational lives of delinquent females, Sparks (2004)
reported that many of the girls, most of whom had been abused and neglected, felt extremely unsafe in most relationships and perceived them as dangerous emotionally and physically. We suspect that some of the youth in this study felt that way too, having experienced similar histories of abuse; however, data from the present study suggests that some of them found in their natural mentoring relationship a person they trusted and one that they perceived cared about them a great deal and knew and understood them. This is promising and worth further investigation.
Similar to Leadbeater and Way’s research on low-income young adult mothers (2001
), data in the present study suggest that older youth exiting foster care value having someone that maintains contact, stays by their side, and is simply there for them
. The narratives of these youth also suggest that some had natural mentoring relationships with adults who stood by them through difficult periods of their lives. As older youth in foster care commonly experience multiple moves in their lives, the consistent presence of a trusted and caring adult over the course of these many transitions may be especially meaningful to them.
Our investigation of the applicability of relational-cultural theory concepts to the natural mentoring relationships among older youth in the process of exiting foster care proved to be fruitful. The findings extend relational-cultural theory concepts, such as empathy and authenticity, by contextualizing these concepts within the experiences of a group of older youth that have histories that commonly include abuse and the insults of spending time in the foster care system. Data suggest that authenticity is a critical component of natural mentoring relationships among older youth exiting foster care and the important natural supports in their lives. Authenticity is thought to include the capacity to share one’s real self, or authentic self, with another fully in a relationship and it has also been described as a quality of presence, or being available to another, in a relationship (Miller et al., 2004
). Authenticity was predominately discussed, in this study, as genuine interest and caring, taking time with youth, quality listening, and a quality described by many as realness, or being real. Many of these dimensions of authenticity have been found in other studies of youth mentoring relationships. For example, Spencer (2006)
indicated authenticity in formal mentoring relationships is primarily defined as youth and mentors being “real”
with each other and expressing (not hiding) their genuine feelings. Our data support this notion, with numerous youth offering responses about mentors keeping things real. As far as sharing their feelings, youth in the present study trusted their mentors and were willing to share important, and at times what may have even been experienced as shameful, aspects of their experiences, with their mentors. Many mentors having themselves experienced similar challenges and circumstances in their own lives seemed to contribute to these experiences of authenticity in these relationships.
Many foster care youth have often experienced traumatic events, such as abuse, removal from home and difficulties that emerge from spending time in the system. Histories such as these can lead individuals to consider relationships and becoming seen, known and understood by another as emotionally and physically dangerous (See Sparks, 2004
). The words “known”
along with their derivatives, such as know and understand, however, were frequently utilized in participant responses. Data on being known and feeling understood and respected are suggestive of empathy. Youth responses suggested they felt understood by mentors and that it was important to them that their mentors seemed to “really” know and respect them. The present study, however, did not collect data from mentors and therefore we cannot report whether or not mentors actually did understand and feel the experiences that youth share with them. In-depth interview data with both relational partners, such as that collected with matches in formal mentoring relationships (Morrow & Styles, 1995
; Spencer, 2006
) is needed to understand relational empathy between older youth in foster care and their natural mentors. With these data, we suggest that being known and feeling understood were nascent lower level codes to a higher level concept, empathy; however, data elements did not explicitly illustrate that youth felt empathy or experienced empathy from their natural mentors.
Samuels and Pryce (2008)
found that young adults more often seek instrumental forms of support, such as help with housing, but that their pride may hinder them from asking for emotional support. Data from this study revealed that both of these forms of support were perceived by the older youth as valuable. Further, in some cases, youth responses in the present study highlighted that natural mentors reached out to them, or called them to offer emotional support without the youth even having to ask for help.
In general, youth in the present study liked that their natural mentors were direct with them, respected them, and held them accountable. Other mentoring studies have not reported this finding. A study on young adults, however, reported that they often want another person in their lives that will hold them accountable and set limits (Leadbeater & Way, 2001
). It is interesting, however, that in the present study this quality existed alongside responses that illustrated the value placed on mentors always being there, and being there no matter what they did or said, suggesting an unconditional quality to the relationship. More research is needed to explore with older youth exiting foster care the value of mentoring relationships being unconditional and also providing limit-setting and boundaries.