The worldwide growth in formal youth mentoring programs over the past two decades is partly a response to the perception that young people facing adversity do not have access to supportive relationships with adults and positive role models in their communities to the degree they once had. Formal mentoring programs facilitate the development of a friendship or ‘match’ between an older volunteer and a young person, with the objective of supporting the young persons’ personal and social development. Drawing on 66 semi‐structured interviews with young people, parents, mentors and caseworkers associated with nine youth mentoring matches in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program in Ireland, this paper analyses the forms of social support evident in the mentor–mentee relationships and highlights how the mentoring relationship was perceived to have impacted on the well‐being of the young people participating. The findings reflect the consensus in the mentoring literature that close, well‐established mentoring relationships have the potential to bring about meaningful change in the lives of young people.
Social support is acknowledged as a core element in well‐being and coping for young people (Bal et al. 2003). Youth mentoring programs aim to formally enhance the social support available to young people, with a particular focus on young people experiencing adversity in their lives. Although there have been many valuable qualitative analyses of youth mentoring relationship dynamics (Philip et al. 2004; Spencer 2006), this study is unique in focusing specifically on the types of social support present in youth mentoring relationships. It is our view that youth mentoring relationships created through formal programs should have, as much as possible, the characteristics of healthy natural relationships occurring outside of program contexts. For this reason, this study has examined the degree to which the types of social support found in supportive relationships (practical, companionship, emotional, advice, esteem support) are evident in relationships created through youth mentoring programs. We are also interested in perceptions of how the support provided enhanced well‐being and coping for the young people involved.
The findings have highlighted how concrete and companionship support, such as bringing the young person out and introducing them to new activities and people, was evident across the nine relationships studied and was a type of support that could be offered without necessarily having a close bond. This concrete and companionship support appeared to lead to enhanced feelings of well‐being among the young people (who described themselves as ‘happy’ and ‘having more time’) and acted to create a foundation from which the relationship could develop and lead to the emergence of emotional, esteem and advice support between mentor and mentee. Reflecting Rhodes (2005) model of youth mentoring, these activities are critical for relationship development and can lead to the emergence of a close bond, from which the processes leading to more substantive outcomes for young people can emerge.