15 Practical ways to support mentees from high risk environments

15 Practical ways to support mentees from high risk environments

“Kids don’t need independence, they need interdependence. People are homeless because they have no functioning human relationships in their lives. Who in this society can live independently? All human beings want to belong somewhere.” (Pat O’Brien – founder of You Gotta Believe Program for older foster teens in New York)

Were you abused as a young person? Do you know someone who was abused as a young person?

Having been an educator for 40 years, I did cross paths with some young people who had been physically and/or emotionally abused as children and was often in awe of their resiliency as they worked through life challenges.

At the moment I am reading a deeply disturbing true story by Carrie Bailee, born and raised in Canada and the trauma she underwent as a child and even as a young adult.Flying On Broken Wings is not for the faint-hearted, as Carrie shares the raw brutality of her experiences mostly at the hands of her father.

Yet what has struck me as I have been reading this book is how Carrie found mentors to guide her through much of her adolescent life after she had finally run away from home, eventually ending up at the home of a single mum with experience working with troubled teens, many of whom were children off the streets.

Tami responded to Carrie’s emotional and psychological needs. Carrie writes: “Tami and I had many conversations during the five years I would float in and out of her life. She would always go to great lengths to assure me that she loved me unconditionally and, no matter what I told her, the love would never change.”

Clearly Tami, through the great skill of listening, displayed exceptional mentoring skills in the life of a broken young woman and her efforts, along with other professionals, helped Carrie, an incredibly resilient person, on her journey to healing.

Research suggests that some of the more common key characteristics of young people from high risk environments would include:

  • a history of antisocial behavior from an early age (eg, extensive defiance; socially aggressive behavior; substance abuse; breaking of serious rules such as theft, cheating, violence, inappropriate sexual behavior);
  • antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs;
  • antisocial associates;
  • relationship problems with family, extended family, teachers, peers and authority figures (eg, indifference, poor social skills, not feeling cared for or valued);
  • a difficult temperament (eg, aggressive, callous, impulsive, egocentric);
  • problems and low levels of achievement in school, work or leisure activities;
  • early and current family or extended family conditions, including low levels of affection, cohesiveness and/or monitoring problems at home which can relate to: substance-dependent parents; parents who are criminal offenders or incarcerated; foster care; divorced or separated parents; socially disadvantaged families; high levels of stress; parental depression;
  • early and prolonged experience of unemployment.

Antisocial behavior can lead to social failure, which may in turn produce a depressed mood. Rejection from peers, family or extended family problems and academic difficulties contribute to the onset of depression among boys in particular.

Parenting behavior contributes significantly to a young person’s self-esteem; non-compliance and antisocial behavior are related to low self-esteem.

15 practical ways mentors can encourage young people from high risk environments

Mentors have the opportunity to play a significant role in assisting mentees to become the best they can be. Equally, mentors need to recognize that in many cases the task can be tough and challenging, requiring persistence and perseverance.

If the mentor has assistance from program staff, practical support to mentees may include any number of the following:

  1. Advocate some form of ongoing education or skills training, perhaps even undertaking some tutoring and/or computer-based instruction to facilitate learning;
  2. Assist those wanting to further their education, who often feel overwhelmed by the range of choices of subjects and courses and by the task of balancing their studies with social activities, sport and work;
  3. Advocate work experience and work ethics training so that your mentees can build work histories and a sense of themselves as workers, as well as earn a living wage;
  4. Arrange and/or run group activities and workshops to promote a positive peer culture and to help mentees develop life skills;
  5. Help to set up financial incentives (linked to the specific mentoring program where relevant), which might include access to financial assistance if needed, to help mentees to save, plan and believe in their future;
  6. Provide intensive emotional support and practical guidance at every step of the way in each mentee’s transition time, and have fun together;
  7. Take on a variety of mentoring roles during each mentee’s transition time. For example, you may need to be a coach, cheerleader, surrogate parent, advocate, teacher, friend and/or mentor who ‘hangs in’ there with your mentee, never giving up on your mentee no matter how far he or she has strayed (indeed, the time when mentees stray is the time when they most need mentors and program staff);
  8. Promote development activities to learn more about health, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual activities, family planning, arts, career and education planning;
  9. Encourage mentees to become involved in community service activities aimed at improving conditions in their communities;
  10. Provide a consistent, reinforcing environment for mentoring and encouraging your mentees;
  11. Provide a clear structure and limits with well-specified consequences that can be delivered in a teaching- or coaching-oriented way;
  12. Closely supervise the mentee’s whereabouts (where applicable);
  13. Involve your mentees in planning for their support and activities;
  14. Sensitively and empathetically discourage your mentees from associating with peers who have problems (especially conduct-related problems) and help your mentees develop skills that will assist them in relationships with positive peers;
  15. Encourage mentees to believe in themselves, identifying resilient qualities and appreciating that it is possible for them to control their own futures.

Quite a few of these areas of practical support were given to Carrie during the time she spent with Tami, so it’s no surprise they formed a meaningful relationship over a number of years. If you want to know more about Carrie’s journey, check out her website.

Do you have any experiences of working with students from high risk environments to share with others? What worked? What did not work?

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organiser, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can join him on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or contact him through his YES! website