Interpersonal Relationships

Children’s social networks are complex and can include relationships with mothers, fathers, siblings, peers, and other non-parental adults. The quality of these relationships can have implications for children’s wellbeing. Youth who do not have supportive interpersonal relationships or struggle to develop these relationships are at risk for poor academic, social, behavioral, and mental and physical health outcomes. The impact of negative interpersonal relationships on youth distress is compounded when multiple relationships within the youth’s life are troubled.1,2

Well-established mentoring relationships may enhance the capacity for youth to develop more effective interpersonal relationships. Rhodes3 proposed a theoretical model describing the processes through which youth mentoring may impart its effect. Rhodes suggests that mentors who model effective adult communication create a context that promotes socio-emotional skill development.4 Over time, these skills may generalize to other relationships within the youth’s social network.5,6 Consistent with this notion is evidence that the effects of youth mentoring are in part explained by improvements in children’s relationships with parents, peers, and other non-parental adults.4,6

In selecting outcomes pertaining to youths’ interpersonal relationships for this Toolkit, emphasis was given to those that have demonstrated potential sensitivity to youth mentoring. The selected outcomes are parental support, significant non-parental adult relationships, peer connectedness, loneliness, and community connectedness.

Parent-child support.

According to attachment theory, children’s early experiences with parents influence later interpersonal adjustment. Children develop a sense of security and autonomy when parents are affectionate, sensitive, and supportive. In the context of this type of relationship, children develop expectations for the availability of significant others and a sense of personal value.7 Early experiences with parents also influence a youth’s ability to develop close relationships with other individuals.8 Parental support is linked with a number of important outcomes in childhood and adolescence. For example, parental support is associated with lower substance use9,10 and can protect youth from the effects of interpersonal stress on depression.11 There is reason to believe that children’s positive interactions with mentors could lead to improvements in aspects of the parent-child relationship.3 For example, drawing on data from the BBBSA outcome study, Rhodes, Reddy & Grossman6 found that mentored youth reported lower substance use than youth in a control condition, and that these gains were explained by improvements in the parent-child relationship brought about by mentoring.

Significant non-parental adult relationships.

A significant non-parental adult is any adult in the youth’s life with whom they feel they have a meaningful positive connection. Over the course of development, youth may seek out non-parental adults as a source of support and guidance. Non-parental adults may serve as a resource for youth in ways that are both similar and distinct from parents.12 Similar to parents, non-parental adults can provide youth with affection, guidance, and support, but unlike parents they are not hindered by expectations of managing problem behavior or providing a home environment with structure, rules, and routines. Available evidence suggests that youth with a positive relationship with a non-parental adult experience heightened psychosocial functioning, improved capacity to navigate peer relationships and friendships, greater peer acceptance, and improved academic and employment outcomes.13,14,15 Youth may benefit from mentoring relationships when they are lacking positive connections with supportive non-parental adults. In fact, there is evidence that youth who participate in formal mentoring are more likely than non-participants to report having a very important adult in their life.16

Peer connectedness.

Peer connectedness refers to the degree of positive feelings toward peers, positive engagement with peers, and a sense of social acceptance. It is clear that peers play a significant role in youth development. Positive experiences with peers are associated with health, wellbeing, and academic success while negative experiences are associated with poor psychosocial and academic adjustment.17 Mentoring relationships that foster socio-emotional skill development in youth may improve youth’s relationships with peers. In one study evaluating the effects of a school-based mentoring program in a sample of predominately Latino students, children in a mentoring condition reported higher levels of peer connectedness than children in a control condition following the intervention.18


Loneliness refers to the subjective experience of dissatisfaction with social relationships that is often accompanied by a negative emotional state.19 Youth who are lonely often struggle to develop and maintain effective interpersonal relationships. Studies reveal that loneliness is associated with impaired peer relations and friendship, and places children at risk for becoming the target of bullying.20,21,22 Moreover, prolonged loneliness can lead to the development of depression.23 Mentors can provide youth who are lonely with affection, emotional support, and social contact. There are few studies that have examined the role of mentoring in affecting youth loneliness, but available evidence suggests a positive effect of mentoring on youth’s emotional functioning.24

Community connectedness.

Community connectedness reflects the perception of youth that they (and other young people) are cared about, trusted, and respected by adults in their community, both as individuals and as a collective group.25 The construct of connectedness is intended to be transactional and reflects a sense of belonging that is both received and reciprocated on the part of youth. Community connectedness may be important in youth’s willingness to engage in a relationship with an adult mentor; and positive experiences with a mentor may also serve to enhance youth feelings of being valued by adult members of their community. Few studies to date have examined associations between mentoring and community connectedness. However, there is some preliminary evidence that participation in a school-based mentoring program is associated with increased community connectedness for youth with low connectedness prior to being matched with a mentor.26

Cited Literature

1. Cohen, J. R., Spiro, C. N., Young, J. F., Gibb, B. E., Hankin, B. L., & Abela, J. R. (2015). Interpersonal risk profiles for youth depression: A person-centered, multi-wave, longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43, 1415–1426.

2. Criss, M. M., Shaw, D. S., Moilanen, K. L. Hitchings, J. E., & Ingoldsby, E. M. (2009). Family, neighborhood, and peer characteristics as predictors of child adjustment: A longitudinal analysis of additive and mediational models. Social Development, 18, 511–535.

3. Rhodes, J. E. (2005). A model of youth mentoring. In D. L. DuBois & M. J. Karcher (Eds.) Handbook of youth mentoring (pp. 30–43). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

4. Rhodes, J. E., Grossman, J. B., & Resch, N. R. (2000). Agents of change: Pathways through which mentoring relationships influence adolescents’ academic adjustment. Child Development, 71, 1662–1671.

5. Rhodes, J. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2008). Mentoring relationships and programs for youth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 254–258.

6. Rhodes, J. E., Reddy, R., & Grossman, J. B. (2005). The protective influence of mentoring on adolescents’ substance use: Direct and indirect pathways. Applied Developmental Science, 9, 31–47.

7. Elicker, J., Englund, M., & Sroufe, L. A. (1992). Predicting peer competence and peer relationships in childhood from early parent–child relationships. In R. D. Parke & G. W. Ladd (Eds.), Family-peer relationships: Modes of linkage. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

8. Furman, W., & Shomaker, L. B. (2008). Patterns of interaction in adolescent romantic relationships: Distinct features and links to other close relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 771–788.

9. Barber, B. K. (1992). Family, personality, and adolescent problem behaviors. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 66–79.

10. Branstetter, S. A., Low, S., & Furman, W. (2011). The influence of parents and friends on adolescent substance use: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Substance Use, 16, 150–160.

11. Hazel, N. A., Oppenheimer, C. W., Technow, J. R., Young, J. F., & Hankin, B. L. (2014). Parent relationship quality buffers against the effect of peer stressors on depressive symptoms from middle childhood to adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 50, 2115–2123.

12. Spencer, R. (2007). Naturally occurring mentoring relationships involving youth. In T. D. Allen & L. T. Eby (Eds.), The Blackwell handbook of mentoring: A multiple perspectives approach (pp. 99 –117). Oxford, England: Blackwell.

13. DuBois, D. L., & Silverthorn, N. Characteristics of natural mentoring relationships and adolescent adjustment: Evidence from a national study. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 25, 69–92.

14. Franco, M., & Levitt, M. J. (1998). The social ecology of middle childhood: Family support, friendship quality, and self-esteem. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 47, 315–321.

15. Kuperminc, G., P., Thomason, J., DiMeo, M., & Broomfield-Massey, K. (2011). Cool Girls, Inc.: Promoting the positive development of urban adolescent girls. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 32, 171–183.

16. Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., Kauh, T. J., Feldman, A. F., & McMaken, J. (2007). Making a difference in schools: The Big Brother Big Sisters School-based Mentoring Impact Study. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures. Retrieved from

17. Bukowski, W. M., Buhrmester, D., & Underwood, M. (2011). Peer relations as a developmental context. In M. K. Underwood & L. H. Rosen (Eds.) Social development: Relationships in infancy, childhood, and adolescence (pp. 153–179). New York, NY: Guildford Press.

18. Karcher, M. J. (2008). The study of mentoring in learning environment (SMILE): A randomized evaluation of the effectiveness of school-based mentoring. Prevention Science, 9, 99–113.

19. Asher, S. R., & Paquette, J. A. (2003). Loneliness and peer relations in childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 75-78.

20. Boivin, M., Hymel, S., & Bukowski, W. M. (1995). The roles of social withdrawal, peer rejection, and victimization by peers in predicting loneliness and depressed mood in childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 7, 765–785.

21. Cassidy, J., & Asher, S. r. (1992). Loneliness and peer relations in young children. Child Development, 63, 350–365.

22. Crick, N. R., & Ladd, G. W. (1993). Children’s perceptions of their peer experiences: Attributions, loneliness, social anxiety, and social avoidance. Developmental Psychology, 29, 244–254.

23. Qualter, P., Brown, S. L., Munn, P., & Rotenberg, K. L. (2010). Childhood loneliness as a predictor of adolescent depression symptoms: an 8-year longitudinal study. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 19, 493–501.

24. DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12, 57–91.

25. Whitlock, J. (2007). The role of adults, public space, and power in adolescent community connectedness. Journal of Community Psychology, 35, 499–518.

26. Portwood, S. G., Ayers, P. M., Kinnison, S. E., Waris, R. G., & Wise, D. L. (2005). YouthFriends: Outcomes from a school-based mentoring program. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 26, 129–145. http://dx.doi/org/10.1007/s10935-005-1975-3

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