By Ellen Laughton.
Mentoring. It’s a word we usually associate with professional career development, but some families are discovering the benefits of youth mentoring for their teenagers. Mentors are being engaged to help teenagers at risk or experiencing personal difficulties, or simply to help young people set and achieve their goals.
What is youth mentoring?
The Australian Youth Mentoring Network defines mentoring as a “structured and trusting relationship that brings young people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement”. Mentoring relationships do not aim to replace familial bonds, but rather seek to provide direction and experience that can be crucial in the difficult years of adolescence.
Youth mentors are typically older, experienced individuals who use their life knowledge to help young people overcome difficulties, pursue talent or even just find their feet in the world.
Jerry, 18, has been mentored since he was 12 and in his first year of high school. His parents had both been mentored as children and they thought that he could use the positive influence of an older friend.
“Interaction with an older generation is important for everyone,” says Jerry. “Just being around adults can teach you a lot that you don’t get from your friends or family.”
Who can be a youth mentor?
A youth mentor can be almost anyone willing; from a professionally trained mentor to a teacher or family friend who your child looks up to or shares a common interest with. They should be someone who is responsible and caring with the best interests of their mentee at heart. Often youth mentors themselves have experienced hardship of some kind, which motivates them to help other young people.
Jerry’s mentor Mick experienced difficulties of his own at school, where his talent as a performer was not recognised until much later in life. “I feel that it is definitely a big part of what drives Mick,” says Jerry. “His sole purpose is to give children opportunities in the drama world from a young age when their minds are open – it’s what he would have wanted himself.”
How youth mentoring has helped three very different teenagers
Dean – ongoing behavioural and school problems
Dean’s mum Leanne turned to mentoring as a final attempt to help her 15-year-old son with school refusal. Dean had struggled with anxiety as a child in primary school, but it worsened in high school. “When he started year 7 we had a fantastic two weeks at first,” said Leanne. “Then he started to skip school again and by the end of first term he had stopped wanting to go. He’d have full-blown anxiety attacks on the way to school, cry and kick, totally melting down. I didn’t have the heart to stop [at school] so I would keep driving.”
“Out of everything we have tried, mentoring seems to have been the only thing that has helped.”
Dean had also been diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5, and his behaviour had led to suspensions and other punishments, which seemed to make the problem worse. “He was disruptive in the classroom,” says Leanne. “But he also became the scapegoat for other kids doing the wrong thing. His anxiety about school became worse, and the school just seemed to be giving up on him.”
When medication, hypnotherapy, a change of high school and even distance education didn’t solve the problem, Dean left schooling and began an apprenticeship at the age of 15.
Earlier, the family had met a man, John, through Dean’s last school where he had been helping with the ‘difficult’ kids. Dean had liked him, and Leanne called John to ask if he would mentor her son.
John was a trained school teacher who had worked in prisons and schools, before becoming a youth mentor. He has stayed in touch with many of the kids he’s mentored, some of whom are now grown with families.
John spends one day a week with Dean in a variety of planned and casual activities. “They just do whatever Dean wants to do, like go fishing,” says Leanne. “Or sometimes John takes him to older people, to speak with the older generation.”
Dean has responded very positively to John. “He loves the mentor,” says Leanne. “Out of everything we have tried, mentoring seems to have been the only thing that has helped.” Leanne believes the informal nature of the help has reduced the stigmatisation that Dean felt from counselling.
Andy – experienced sudden crisis
“I had never known anyone who had been mentored,” says Andy, 19. “It never really occurred to me how valuable that relationship could actually be for a kid.”
At 16, one of Andy’s closest friends passed away unexpectedly, leaving him distraught and confused. “He was far too young for such a thing to happen, and I was too young to deal with it,” Andy says. “The only thing I could do was shut down.”
“At first I didn’t want to talk to him. Sometimes we would just sit there for ages in silence.”
Andy stopped talking to his friends and family, cutting himself off from everything he was connected to. After four months of isolation, Andy’s mother introduced him to Steven, a work friend of hers who had gone through a similar experience at high school. “At first I didn’t want to talk to him,” says Andy. “Sometimes we would just sit there for ages in silence.”
Steven continued visiting Andy and bit by bit began to help Andy open up by sharing his thoughts and memories of his own experience. “Hearing Steven talk about [his friend] was the most helpful,” says Andy. “I didn’t feel alone or guilty anymore – I felt like we were both working through our grief together, and that was comforting.”
Almost three years on, Andy is still in contact with Steven and feels very strongly about the importance of mentoring for teenagers at risk. “Bad things can happen to anybody,” he says. “Mentors seem to have the power to reach the places that friends and family can’t – they are the only ones that can lead you out of the downward spiral.”
Jessica – talented in music
Jessica, 19, was introduced to her mentor, Brad, by her music teacher in year 6. “My teacher thought I needed some extending,” says Jess. “She thought Brad was a good person for that.”
Unlike most mentoring relationships, Jess was unable to have regular face-to-face contact with Brad, as he lived in a different city and was often travelling for work. “I could only meet with him once a month at the most,” she says. “But he was never too busy to answer my questions or just to have a chat if I gave him a call.”
For Jess, Brad’s guidance has been an invaluable force behind her musical education. “When we are looking at a piece of music, Brad calls the shots and has goals for me,” says Jess. “He is good at asking me questions to let me discover for myself the important things about the music.”
“They provide you with the responsibility to learn and the perspective to act in the best way.”
As Jess now looks to building a career within the world of music, Brad’s role has shifted to encompass the emotional and professional support needed to make it in the highly competitive industry. “Brad is a very well connected man, and has been extremely good at vouching for me,” says Jess. “He has opened a lot of doors.”
Jess feels that one of the most important aspects of her mentoring relationship with Brad has been the generational gap between them. “We come from such different worlds culturally,” she observes. “When we look at a piece of music, there is no bias as we cancel each other out and see only what is on the page.”
Youth mentoring is a concept that Jess supports wholeheartedly. “The idea of having inherited the world from these people is extremely humbling,” says Jess. “They provide you with the responsibility to learn and the perspective to act in the best way.”
How to find a youth mentor
There are a number of professional youth mentoring services available across Australia. The Australian Youth Mentoring Network is a website that provides access to a broad range of mentoring services that suit many different needs.
Alternatively, mentors can be people you may already know. Family friends, teachers and coaches can often make great mentors for children who are having trouble finding their path in life or are anxious about the future. However, in some cases, professionally trained mentors are preferable as they are properly qualified to help young people in any situation.
Parents should include their teenager in choosing a mentor. It is important that your child feels comfortable talking to and being around the mentor; keeping an ongoing dialogue about your teenager’s experience with the mentor is essential.
Further information on youth mentoring
* All names in this article have been changed.
This article was written by The Kids Are All Right intern Ellen Laughton. Ellen is a first year student at the University of Sydney, studying Arts (Media & Communications). Read more about our internship program.