Three ingredients to building character in young people

1. CARE

Really caring and having a heart towards young people is absolutely critical if you’re to make a difference and impact their lives. It may sound obvious but it’s difficult to care for someone that you don’t know. But when you have it, care drives and motivates you. It means you don’t just walk away from a conversation and leave it there, but you continue to think about how you might advise them, what you might say to them when you see them later that week. You continue to mull the conversation over in your mind.

How can you be confident that you are giving the best advice?

Sometimes I just mull over a conversation with a young person and have a lightbulb moment, but more often I’ll talk to those around me. So teamwork is really important. Professionals are usually encouraged to keep everything in a box with no emotional weight to remain with them. But if you care, you can’t keep it in a box! There will inevitably be a sense of carrying of the young person ‘in your heart’. And so sharing with others is really important so that you don’t have the full intensity of that relationship solely on yourself. That also stops you from believing as a mentor that you have all the answers!

I am a strong advocate of the team approach. So when I’m thinking about a young person I have a team of people around me (including my boss, other members of staff and trusted peers) that I talk to. I won’t talk about the young person specifically, I’ll talk about their situation and in that way I get wisdom in areas that I don’t know about. A multiplication of wisdom occurs. For example, I might have 20 years of experience, but if I talk with someone else who has another 20 years of experience, then that’s 40 years of experience that the young person is gaining, rather than being limited to just my 20 years.

This is the way that we bring the benefits of a team approach to something that is traditionally a very individualistic thing.

What about confidentiality?

The standard line in youth work or teaching is ‘everything that you tell me in this session is confidential unless it puts you or someone else at risk, at which point I will have to make a disclosure.’ The trouble is this can draw people into a hidden place. But the whole idea of a one-to-one mentoring relationship is to get young people to be free, to be open, to allow light into the dark places as it were. If you look at mental health you see an awful lot of benefit to young people being given space to talk. You could argue that you can do this without drawing anyone else in. But of course we want to be better than just ourselves! We want to have some dynamic interaction. So our line is ‘if you trust me enough to tell me something, you have to trust me enough to do the right thing with the information.’ Because we work as a team, we benefit from the team.

2. Building RELATIONSHIP

It’s important to recognise that building relationship is at the core of engaging with young people. Once you start to say ‘everything is confidential’ you enter into a contract which can be broken. Whereas we’re seeking to create a basis of trust. And trust is built through relationship

From a very young age I benefitted from having youth leaders, other family members or adults who were interested in me as a person who would give me an independent view to my parents’. I couldn’t therefore rubbish what my parents said to me, because these were independent people that I trusted that were bringing a similar message.

Many of the young people don’t have a positive parental role model and they certainly don’t have other trusted adults who will back up that message, so mentoring provides that.

It’s important for me personally to have a mentor because I’m advocating a mentoring relationship with the young person. They can trust me, because I walk the talk. If I think mentoring is good for them, then surely I would benefit from it as well. And the reason I think that mentoring is really important is I HAVE benefitted from it.

What qualities do you need to become a mentor?

Often someone says to me ‘I’m considering becoming a mentor, but I don’t know if I could do it’. The very fact that they are thinking in those terms says to me that they care. I’ve had the same question from an 18 year old and an eighty year old! The question indicates that they’d be a brilliant mentor! The worst mentors that I’ve worked with are those who say ‘oh yes, I know mentoring, I know how to do it.’ They’re the ones who will work individualistically, they won’t take input, or work as part of a team. They believe they have all the answers. But the person who says ‘I don’t know if I can do it’ are the ones who draw wisdom from others around them. They’re the ones who will have an impact on young people.

Young people tend not to have robust family relationships so the 18 year old is not too young! They can be the slightly older brother or sister and that can be a very positive relationship for a young person to have – someone who understand their culture, but who has more experience and greater maturity. An eighty year can’t play that role. But they can play the role of the missing Grandparent. They’re just as valuable as the 18 year old. It’s just a case of understanding what role you play.

How do you know a mentor and mentee are a good match?

The matching process is really key. You have to get to know the young person a little bit before you make a match. That’s where the Mentor co-ordinator role differs according to the sphere that it’s played out in. In schools there’s one mentor, and that mentor has to work with all the young people that the school refers. They’ll need more support and more tools to draw on.

Volunteer mentors are different. The person who matches them has a pool of people to draw on, so they need to have an understanding of the individual students AND an understanding of each of the mentors in order to be able to make a good match. So it’s crucial to get to know them both!

3. Building TRUST

This is the consistent theme. So consistent that we’ve already talked about it! Everywhere we go we build relationship because that’s what is at the heart of mentoring. We want to build an extended social network for the young person. So for us to have integrity that has to be consistent in how we relate with our mentors, teachers in the schools and the young people. So the things that we preach, you’ll see practised in every area of our work.

What do you advise a mentor to do the first time they meet a young person?

The key thing is to build trust from the outset. Some young people will be dying to talk to someone and be really talkative. Other times a teacher has said to us ‘how on earth did you find that out, I had no idea that’s what was going on’. Teachers, of course, don’t usually have the luxury of talking with a student for 30 minutes and parents sometimes don’t make that opportunity. A mentor creates that space. They have some key questions that they use and a resource pack of activities to draw upon.

Some good, open questions to start with are ‘how was school today?’or ‘what do you like to do?’. The challenge is when a young person won’t talk. I once had an hour’s mentoring session with a young person who didn’t speak once! It really tested my skills and I ended up talking a lot! Most of the time this happens it’s because they don’t trust you.

How do you build trust?

You can’t make someone trust you, but the way that you can help others to trust you is by trusting them. So for example, when I talk to a young person I want them to be vulnerable and open. So I have to demonstrate that myself. It’s kind of hypocritical not to! Good leaders always lead by example. However, we don’t want to burden a young person, so when sharing stories you always have to ask yourself ‘is this for the benefit of the young person, or am I getting some benefit myself? Is it feeding a need in me? For example, if I start talking about how frustrated I am with someone in my family, that’s probably fulfilling a need in me, rather than benefitting the young person.

Working with openness in a team setting really helps people to unravel this!

So to build trust I might talk about my experiences of being mentored. I might ask if they think it’s weird, I might even guess how they are feeling about the situation! But I’d never give them just one option. I’d say, for example: ‘Do you think this is a bit weird, or are you feeling quite privileged?’ because I don’t want to lead them down a particular path.

I spoke to a mentor last night whose mentee had taken three months before he would speak!  However, the mentor was really good because he used asked for advice on what to do. So he talked about himself, his likes and dislikes. But during this time trust was being built, so now the young person talks and they get on very well! Sometimes it’s really hard. And that’s why real care and compassion is required to persevere. And why it’s so important to work as a team too! Some young people just don’t want to be mentored, but there are plenty of others who really do.

Nathan Singleton

Nathan Singleton

Director of Young People's Services

Nathan is passionate about improving the lives of young people. Whether by empowering a young person to engage in education where no-one else has, or reaching a family that the statutory sector has given up on, Nathan is single-minded in his determination to provide an alternative, positive, future for young people.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on Google+