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Learn how to build mentoring relationships with youth.


Congratulations! You've chosen to take on one of the most difficult, often frustrating, and ultimately rewarding responsibilities in the world: Acting as a mentor to an adolescent in need. To meet the challenges of this new relationship, you'll need an abundance of patience, creativity, and good humor. You'll also need top-notch communication, problem solving, and goal setting skills.

These next sections are for you, the adult mentor. In addition to outlining communication, problem solving, and goal setting techniques, they'll give you the tools you'll need to build and nurture this very important relationship.

Why is your relationship with your protégé important?

Few components of an inter generational program are as vital to its success as strong personal relationships. But like any other relationship, a successful relationship between you and your protégé won't just happen. It will take skill and hard work, on both your parts, to make your relationship grow.

Keep in mind that the foundations of your mentoring relationship are laid the minute you meet your protégé. The relationship will grow and change for as long as you're working together. So it's worth some effort on your part to make sure things go as smoothly as they can!

How do you build a mentoring relationship with youths?

There are a number of factors that go into building a youth mentoring relationship. In this section we will discuss a number of attitudes, skills, and activities, as well as how to build them into your relationship with your protégé.

The importance of modeling behaviors

Remember, as a mentor, you'll be a role model for your protégé. Your protégé will internalize and copy your actions, so it's important that you take your own actions seriously. Positive behaviors you can model include:

  • Being consistent and reliable in your behavior
  • Not using profanity
  • Always keeping your word: Doing what you say you're going to do in a timely fashion
  • Being friendly and polite
  • Being helpful
  • Being respectful

Cultural sensitivity

Your protégé may well have a different racial or socioeconomic background than yours. They will, typically, be somewhat younger than you, and will probably not have attained your level of education and life experience. It's very important, though, that you be conscious of any preconceived notions you have about your protégé based on these things, and avoid letting any prejudices you have color your relationship. Your protégé is an individual, with individual strengths and individual faults. Don't let preconceived ideas about your protégé's race/culture/class act as a barrier to your relationship!

At the same time, you will want to be aware of cultural and social issues that may have an impact on your relationship. Your awareness of and respect for your protégé's cultural traditions will go far toward strengthening the bond between you.

And remember: Your relationship with your protégé is not a "one-way street." By labeling the youth - in any way - you run the risk of overlooking everything he or she has to offer the relationship.

Building trust

Respecting your protégé's cultural beliefs is only one of many steps you can take toward gaining their trust. They may be wary at first, and may have trouble believing you'll be there when he or she needs you. No matter your protégé's background, they are unlikely to trust you automatically--you'll need to earn their trust. Here are some tips that will help you:

  • First and foremost, give your protégé time to trust you. Trust doesn't happen overnight, it builds over time. It's something you have to earn.
  • Keep conversations with your protégé confidential! The only exception to this rule is when you have reason to believe your protégé is going to hurt herself or someone else.
  • Be sensitive to your protégé's daily concerns. His daily life may include issues of survival that require more energy than the mentoring relationship.
  • Be patient and help your protégé through the storm and stress of adolescence!
  • Be consistent. Reliability fosters respect and gives your protégé a safe environment in which to let down their guard.
  • Show and tell your protégé that they are important to you.
  • Encourage and praise your protégé. They can never have too much positive reinforcement!
  • Don't be afraid to express your opinion. Feedback, both positive and constructively critical, helps give your protégé direction and motivation to continue reaching for their goals.
  • Respect your protégé's right to make their own choices, even when you disagree with those choices.
  • Be sensitive to your protégé's feelings. Think before you speak, and take responsibility for your own feelings and actions before you project them onto others.
  • Take responsibility for contacting the protégé to set up meetings. Follow up when they don't call you. Schedule meetings in advance and then confirm them a day ahead of time. Be on time.
  • Make every effort to show up for meetings. If you absolutely cannot make a meeting, cancel at least a day in advance and then reschedule as soon as possible.
  • Measure progress in small steps and by how much your protégé has accomplished, not by how much you have left to do.

Trust, like communication, is a 2-way street. You must trust your protégé, and show this trust to them, in order to foster a productive relationship.

Communication skills

As a mentor, the most important thing you'll contribute to your protégé, besides helping the protégé reach their goals, is a trusting relationship. And communication is the key. But believe it or not, no one is a born communicator. Good communication takes time and practice!

Here are some of the keys to good communication:

  • Active listening: Probably the most important of these. Active listening means listening with your head, not just your ears. It's the ability to focus on and feel what you're being told.
  • Assertiveness: This means expressing your feelings effectively and appropriately, and setting boundaries where necessary. Some people are uncomfortable being assertive, but rest assured, it's a skill you can learn like any other!
  • Empathy: This is simply understanding how the other person feels without being judgmental. Don't confuse empathy with sympathy, which means feeling sorry for or feeling pity for someone who's in a worse situation than you are.
  • Open-mindedness: It's important to be as non-judgmental as possible and accept that your protégé has a right to hold their own beliefs (personal, political, religious, or any other) even if you disagree.
  • Self-awareness: Recognize and accept your own limitations. It's important to identify your feelings and their source, and accept responsibility for your feelings and actions.
  • Support: In a mentor relationship, it's important to offer moral support, acceptance, and encouragement despite personal disapproval over the decisions your protégé has made.
  • Trust: This involves demonstrating your feelings and views to another and being open to her reactions. This means taking risks, making yourself vulnerable, and accepting the fact that sometimes your trust may be abused. Scary, isn't it! The pay-off, however is better communication for everybody.

Active listening

 As mentioned above, active listening is key to effective communication.

Whenever two people communicate, there are three components to whatever communication occurs: the "sender," the "receiver," and the message. So, for example, if you tell your protégé "I'll meet you at the library at four o'clock," you're the sender, your protégé is the receiver, and the message is "see you at the library at four." But what if your protégé isn't paying attention? They may show up at the wrong time, or the wrong place, or not at all. Even if the two of you were in the same room when you made arrangements to meet, the message was not received.

It's important that you become a good "receiver" for the messages your protégé is trying to send! This includes paying attention to the feelings and emotions behind what your protégé is saying. If you routinely "tune out" your protégé, trust will be eroded and you may not meet your protégé's needs.

This is where active listening comes in. An active or attentive listener:

  • Hears what the person says
  • Identifies and labels the feelings a speaker experiences
  • Listens for undercurrent feelings not explicitly expressed by the speaker. Undercurrent feelings give you excellent insight into what's really going on inside your protégé and into attitudes and behavior that may have lasted a lifetime
  • Recognizes personal values and personal history revealed in conversation. This can include the kind of family a person grew up in, what's important to the person, what the person's view of the world is, how this person treats other people, how this person treats their self.

The components of active listening:

The process of active listening also includes response, body language, and empathy. Let's discuss these in detail:


In order to demonstrate interest and gain understanding, it's important for a listener to respond to a speaker verbally and non-verbally. Some verbal response techniques include:

  • Paraphrases: Restatements of the speaker's feeling or meaning in your own words. Paraphrases help you guard against miscommunication and allow the speaker to clarify her own feelings.
    • "So the security guard accused you of stealing the shirt, and called you a liar when you said it was paid for."
  • Feeling reflections: Statements that focus on the emotions or feelings you observe in the speaker. Feeling reflections show the speaker that you are listening and validating her emotions.
    • "You were angry when the guard accused you of stealing the shirt."
  • Clarifications: Questions or comments you make to elicit more information from the speaker and to double-check your and the speaker's understanding of the problem.
    • "And you say this happened yesterday."
  • Neutral statements: Brief verbal responses that show the speaker that you are following the conversation.
    • "I see. Go on."
  • Summaries: Organizing statements that capture the speaker's emotions and concerns concisely. A summary helps integrate the information you've heard, leads to new directions in conversation, and helps wrap up a listening session.
    • "If I understand you, you feel this situation is unfair and your first reaction was to get angry."

Body language:

Another component of active listening and effective responding is non-verbal; the posture you have during a conversation clues the speaker in to how interested you are in the conversation. Remember to:

  • Look the person in the eye - Good eye contact shows you that are paying attention and take the conversation seriously. Watching the speaker also lets you read the speaker's body language, which may say a lot about how they feel. However, in some cultures, steady eye contact is not considered polite. Be sensitive to these cultural differences.
  • Use natural posture - Sit up in your chair with your legs crossed or together or stand up with your feet about a shoulder's width apart in a relaxed stance. If you slouch, rest your head on your hands, shift positions a lot, or cross your arms on your chest, you signal boredom, fatigue or restlessness.
  • Sit in a helping position - If you sit across from a person with a table in between, you may put yourself in an "oppositional" stance. Sit at an angle and lean slightly towards (but don't crowd out!) your protégé.


As we mentioned earlier in the section, empathy means understanding how the other person feels without being judgmental. Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which means feeling sorry for or feeling pity for someone who's in a worse situation than you are. Your protégé doesn't want to be pitied, but they do want to feel like you understand.

  • Concentrate on what the adolescent says
  • Listen for the underlying feelings and values in the speaker's tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and in the content of what's being said
  • Reflect your protégé's feelings and values back to them
  • Summarize important issues and feelings you've heard

Communications pitfalls - what not to do:

The rationale of good listening is to encourage communication and understanding, and to pave the way for future sharing. Yet some common reactions or styles of relating can leave your protégé feeling uncomfortable, which shuts down communication. Some common pitfalls include the following:

  • Interrupting a person while they are talking
  • Arguing or constantly opposing the other person's point of view
  • Blaming your feelings on someone else
  • Passing judgment on a person's actions
  • Demanding that someone do something or behave in a certain way
  • Not recognizing a person's right to their own opinions
  • Giving advice instead of working together to find alternatives
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Pressuring someone to disclose information about themselves before they're ready
  • Abusing confidentiality
  • Some of these are common styles of communication to fall into; you've probably used some of them yourself on occasion. But think how frustrated you would be if you wanted a good listener and ended up with an inconsiderate talker! To practice your active listening skills, see the Tools section for an exercise on active listening.

Problem solving

The process of helping your protégé explore and understand her concerns and their solutions is called problem solving. The listener does not make suggestions or give advice to the speaker; rather, they help her understand the root cause of the problem and construct alternative solutions.

The steps to effective problem solving are as follows:

  • Exploring the problem: Your protégé describes the problem as they understand it
  • Understanding the problem: Using open-ended questions, you uncover important facts, feeling sources, personal limitations and preferences. Understanding the problem also helps your protégé to understand their emotions
  • Defining the problem: You and your protégé restate the problem, locating its root causes. In this step, you can use open-ended questions and summaries to help your protégé clarify the problem
  • Brainstorming alternatives: You and your protégé think of any and all options, no matter how far-fetched or impractical they seem, to dealing with the root of the problem
  • Evaluating options: You and your protégé discuss the benefits and risks of each alternative, narrowing options down to the most agreeable or most plausible solutions
  • Choosing the best option: Your protégé can now choose the best alternatives for the given situation, based on the solution's advantages and disadvantages and her personal values, abilities and limitations. It's important that you respect and support the decision she reaches, even if you don't entirely agree with it
  • Taking action: This step entails the youth and mentor making observable efforts to bring about the solution best tailored to the speaker's needs. It would be easy to ignore this last step, but then the problem solving process wouldn't be the problem solving process!

Pay close attention and devote enough time to enhance your communication and problem -solving skills. They will be very important to your mentoring relationship.

What do you do when things don't work out?

The fact is, despite everyone's best efforts, not all relationships work out. You and your protégé may experience insurmountable cultural differences, communication problems, or a lack of common interests, or you may simply not get along. You may also find that your protégé has problems that cannot be addressed in the context of a mentoring program.

We encourage you to do your best to work things out between you and your protégé, if possible. Your protégé will see that there is at least one adult who is willing to "go the distance" for them, and may at the same time learn valuable lessons about determination and persistence. But you should also be aware of your own limitations. If the strained relationship between you and your protégé has become a barrier to your protégé reaching their goals, or if your protégé has serious problems that are beyond your ability to help, it's time to end the relationship. Be sure to notify program staff so your protégé may be reassigned to a new mentor. Also, if you suspect your protégé is experiencing an abusive home environment, a substance use problem, or a mental illness, notify program staff as soon as possible, so your protégé can be referred to the appropriate agency for help.

In Summary

Building your relationship with your protégé is a difficult but extremely rewarding enterprise. Progress may be slow, and you and your protégé may get frustrated. Hang in there! With some time, patience, and work you will make a real difference in your protégé's life. And don't forget to celebrate your successes!

Lorraine Claassen

Online Resources

The National Mentor Partnership's Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication details research-informed and practitioner-approved standards for creating and sustaining quality youth mentoring programs and consequently, impactful mentoring relationships.

How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program Using the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring is a planning toolkit with tools, templates and advice for implementing the  Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication.

Print Resources

Basualdo-Delmonico, A. M., & Spencer, R. (2016). A parent's place: Parents', mentors' and program staff members' expectations for and experiences of parental involvement in community-based youth mentoring relationships. Children And Youth Services Review, 616-14. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.11.021

Rhodes, J., Liang, B., & Spencer, R. (2009). First do no harm: Ethical principles for youth mentoring relationships. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 40(5), 452-458. doi:10.1037/a0015073

Campus Partners in Learning. (1990). Resource Manual for campus-based youth mentoring programs. Providence, RI: Brown University.

Freedman, M. (1993). The kindness of strangers: adult mentors, urban youth, and the new volunteerism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Furano, K. at al. (1993). Big brother/big sister: A study of program practices. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Interactive Skills Program: Helping Through Listening and Influencing, Hedlund and Freedman, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Service, l981.

Kanfer, F. (1995). A Mentor manual: for adults who work with pregnant and parenting teens. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Public/Private Ventures. (1994, Winter). Mentoring in the juvenile justice system. Philadelphia, PA: Mecartney, C.A.

Roaf, P. A. at al. (1994). Big Brother / Big Sister: A study of volunteer recruitment and screening. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.