As teenagers make plans for the summer, several questions pop up. What do they want to do? Do they need to make money?
To these we should add a question that might not always jump to mind: Will they have a chance to learn from a mentor?
David Cruz was 15 when he connected with a counselor at an after-school program in East Palo Alto, Calif.
Mr. Cruz, the son of a Mexican immigrant, credits his mentor, Karla Monterroso, who was a manager at the program, College Track, with making a critical difference in his life.
“It was Karla who got me to college,” said Mr. Cruz, who is now 30 and pursuing a master’s degree in business. “She not only edited my essays, but drove me to UC Berkeley and put a tie on me so I could interview for the scholarship I received.”
To try to give back, Mr. Cruz now volunteers at his local Boys and Girls Club. “I had no male role models growing up; that’s who I am now for my community,” he said.
Not every teenager needs or wants that level of mentoring, but there is evidence that mentors, even more than parents, contribute to adolescents’ self-esteem.
Teenagers can be quick to discount praise from their parents as tainted by obligation or bias. But meaningful feedback from adults outside the family can help catalyze adolescent growth, according to recent research by Belle Liang, a professor of psychology at Boston College.
Dr. Liang said: “A good mentor would be able to say, ‘I noticed how you lit up when you were showing the younger campers how to build a fire — you were so skillful in the way that you taught them. Keep using that gift.’”
Young teenagers who connect with empowering adults outside of their families — whether through volunteering, paid work, youth programs or religious communities — go on to be less reckless and enjoy higher levels of well-being. Even when previous levels of risk-taking and psychological health are taken into account, the association between early mentoring and later thriving persists.
Having a supportive relationship with an adult outside the family has also been tied to increased life-satisfaction among teenagers.
Dr. Liang recommended that teenagers making summer plans ask, “whom will I be interacting with and how will they be working with me?” They might also look into whether they will be doing the same thing all summer, or might have opportunities and support to learn new skills. “A positive mentoring experience will help teenagers move further along in figuring out what they are good at, what they love, and what they want to do,” she said.
Emma Freer, a graduate student at Columbia University’s journalism school, still keeps in touch with her supervisor from an internship she had at a magazine when she was in high school. “I always felt that I got recognition when I did a good job,” Ms. Freer said, “but she didn’t offer it prematurely. I really had to deliver on the assignment.” During college, she kept up with her former boss and completed small assignments for the magazine. When it was time to apply to graduate school, Ms. Freer asked her mentor for a recommendation: “My comfort asking for that letter was a byproduct of our yearslong relationship.”
It can also be easier for adolescents to hear hard feedback from adults who aren’t their parents or teachers. A supervisor who encourages a 16-year-old to double-check his work for errors will almost certainly run into a less defensive response than a parent offering the same suggestion. And I’ll admit that in my psychotherapy practice a decent percentage of what I say to adolescents repeats what their folks have already said to them. Few channels contain more emotional noise than those between teenagers and their parents. The comparatively neutral relationship I have with the young people in my practice simply helps my signal get through.
The kind of guidance that will be most useful will depend, in part, on the support a teenager already has in place. According to Renée Spencer, a social worker and a professor at Boston University, “college-educated adults can help disadvantaged teenagers navigate unfamiliar systems, broker links to other adults, and provide concrete information their parents just might not have.”
At the other end of the economic spectrum, teenagers with sturdy social and economic resources may welcome the perspective of an adult who, compared to parents, teachers, coaches or tutors, holds a less personal stake in their future plans. “A mentor can help a teenager think beyond achievement for achievement’s sake and wonder where their successes can take them,” Dr. Spencer said. “They might ask ‘How can you leverage your resources and interests to go out there and do something you really care about?’”
If as adults we ourselves happen to be in the company of other people’s teenagers this summer — or during any other season — there are deliberate steps we can take to connect with them. Dr. Spencer’s research shows that mentoring relationships flourish when adults are authentic and empathic, when they are at ease with adolescents and go out of their way to understand a teenager’s perspective.
“Listen to what they say and show them that you remember what they’ve told you,” said Peter Scales, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Search Institute, a nonprofit focusing on youth development. He added that adults should treat teenagers with the respect we would offer our own adult peers.
These may seem like common-sense suggestions but as Dr. Liang noted, it can be all too easy for adults to fall into the stereotype of viewing teenagers as “being in danger, or being dangerous.” Instead, she recommended that we see mentoring not as a way to fix teenagers, “but as a way to help them leverage their strengths not just for their own good, but for society’s.”
Lisa Damour (@LDamour) is a psychologist in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a senior adviser to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is the author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”