At one time or another, most of us have thrown our hands in the air in frustration or shook our head in dismay at the antics or bad choices of teens today. Whether it’s an anonymous teen on the news or a young person close to our heart, teen behavior can be puzzling. However, while it’s easy to bemoan the actions of the younger generation, there is a better way to make a positive impact.

Mentoring is a relationship that allows someone to share his or her experience or skills to the benefit of another – usually younger – person. Some mentors take the role of teacher, providing instruction and advice on a specific career skill or talent. In other mentoring relationships, the mentor and mentee spend time together for companionship, positive role modeling and general life guidance. These relationships are especially beneficial for troubled teens who might have a challenged relationship with their parents.

According to the Federal Mentoring Council, mentoring can be a successful intervention strategy for at-risk youth, promoting positive behaviors and attitudes. Close, consistent and enduring mentoring relationships – characterized by mutuality, trust and empathy – are key when working with teens. An effective mentoring relationship spans a significant time period and is focused on the young person’s interests and preferences. Brief or inconsistent relationships do not have the same positive impact.

One of the key benefits of mentoring is better academic performance. A 2007 study of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program identified that young people in school-based mentoring programs turned in higher-quality class work, did better academically (especially in science and written and oral communication) and completed more assignments than their peers who did not have mentors. The study also indicated youth with mentors had fewer unexcused absences from class than students without mentors.

Many students in mentoring relationships experience an overall improvement in behavior and attitude. Teachers report an increased interest and engagement in the classroom, and parents often experience fewer confrontations and better communication with their teens. Violent behavior is also rarer among teens with mentors. Mentees in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program were 32 percent less likely to report having hit someone over the past year than the young people without mentors.

Young people who work with a mentor also have a decreased likelihood of trying drugs or alcohol. Another BBBS study showed 6.2 percent of mentees initiated drug use, compared to 11.4 percent of their peers without mentors, and 19.4 percent initiated alcohol use, compared to 26.7 percent of teens who did not participate in a mentoring program. Another study of the Across Ages mentoring program also showed mentees gained important life skills to help them stay away from drugs.

Mentoring has also been linked in studies to social-emotional development benefits, improvements in youth perceptions of parental relationships and better prospects for moving on to higher education.

However, it’s important to remember that not all mentoring opportunities are created equal. Research shows that mentoring programs are most likely to achieve success if they embrace best practices that include:

  • Mentors with previous relevant experience in helping others
  • Mentors who commit to at least 12 consecutive months of participation
  • Training and support for mentors, including help structuring activities with mentees
  •  Program monitoring for early problem detection and intervention
  •  Parents who are involved as much as possible
  • Programs that are evaluated regularly and flexible to change as necessary

Mentoring has an undeniably positive benefit on the life of the young mentees, but it can be a rewarding for the adult mentor, too. If you feel called to help guide and inspire a young person, you can volunteer your time formally with a nonprofit mentoring match service such as BBBS. Other people might find mentoring opportunities through their church youth group leader or may more informally spend time with a teen they know on a regular basis.

To learn more about how mentoring might benefit a troubled teen in your life,