Mentoring: Navigating the tough times

Mentoring relationships have highs and lows. Explore tips to help you stay together through the tough times.

Every day, mentoring case workers around the country hear from mentors who are questioning their commitment. This is normal and expected. There is a natural cycle to mentoring and at some point most mentors wonder whether they are making a difference or if their time is being used in a valuable way. Why do mentors doubt their impact? And how can you get through the tough times?

Mentors can underestimate their impact because mentees do not always communicate well. Young people are still learning to express themselves. Some mentees forget to say thank you and many struggle to open up and share. What you may not realize is that it doesn’t matter if your mentee opens up to you. What matters is whether your mentee knows that he can open up. I once interviewed a mentor and mentee separately. The mentee reported that he can tell his mentor anything. The mentor complained that the mentee never talked and he thought maybe someone else would do a better job. When we addressed this together, the young man explained that he isn’t ready to talk, but he feels really good knowing that his mentor is there for him if he needs him. This knowledge alone gave the mentor the information he needed to continue the relationship and they were matched for five years and still keep in touch.

Slow progress can also cause mentors to doubt the relationship. It is easy to forget that change takes time. The goals of the mentoring relationship cannot be addressed until there is trust between the mentor and mentee. It can take a considerable amount of time for a young person to trust a mentor, particularly if the young person has had negative experiences with other adults. Once trust is built, it takes more time to address goals. Adults often have the skills to address a goal, make a plan and implement it quickly. We forget that young people are still learning these skills, so it takes longer to meet the goal.

So how can mentors make it through the tough times? The first step is identifying the problem. Do you feel unappreciated? Is the slow progress bothering you? Once you identify the problem, you can address it. If you doubt your impact, talk to the case worker. The case worker can touch base with the parent and youth. These conversations often lead to discoveries of impacts that the mentor was unaware of. If slow progress is the issue, mentors may need to assess their personal goals for the relationship and make sure they are realistic. Talking to your case worker can help you better understand youth development and expected growth through mentoring.

Finally, mentors should try to talk about these issues with their mentee in a caring way. Modeling healthy communication and other behaviors you want to encourage is another way for mentors to teach these important life skills. In the end, remember that your involvement as a mentor does make a difference. It can take time to create a bond or see change, but it will come.

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