Relationships with male mentors may help adolescent boys learn when and how to rely on others in times of stress, according to research presented at APA's Annual Convention in Toronto.
A study presented by psychologist Renee Spencer, EdD, for example, found that the boys' relationships with supportive male mentors enabled them to be more open emotionally and, in some cases, seemed to contribute to the boys getting in less trouble at school.
"Decades of research have linked having one good relationship with an adult with all sorts of good outcomes for adolescents, but I was struck by how much of a role emotional support played in these relationships," said Spencer. "It really stood out."
Spencer interviewed twelve pairs of male adult and adolescent participants in a Big Brothers Association volunteer mentoring program both individually and as a pair. The pairs had been in a continuous, successful mentoring relationship for at least one year and all of the boys were without father-figures in their home, a prerequisite of the Big Brothers program.
Contradicting previous research that suggests male relationships are centered on activity rather than emotional expression, Spencer found that the mentors tried to be emotionally available to the adolescents when they were engaged in shared activities. In turn, the boys reported feeling increased self-confidence and a greater ability to manage their emotions.
"The pairs really did develop close relationships, with emotional support as a central feature of those relationships," said Spencer. "Even if an adolescent wasn't actively reaching out, they reported that they counted on their mentor and felt like he was someone they could turn to."
While limited because of the small study group, the study does show that these same-sex mentoring relationships can provide an environment in which youth feel safe to share their emotions, she said.
The study was presented in conjunction with research by psychologist Judy Chu, PhD, on how masculinity affects boys' relationship development.
Chu observed and interviewed six four-year-old boys over two years to find out how boys may modify their behavior and self-expression in light of masculine norms in their interpersonal relationships. She found that while boys may learn to hide their relational capacities, they do not lose them as some previous research has concluded. In other words, while boys' relational capabilities may become more difficult to detect as they adapt to societal norms and pressures, she said, there is evidence that they continue to retain relational capabilities beyond early childhood.