Many young people experience social isolation and loneliness, which can have adverse effects on physical and psychological well-being. We propose that intergenerational relationships created through formal youth mentoring programs have the potential to reduce the social isolation of young people. Mentoring programs also enable adult volunteers to form new interpersonal connections. In addition, mentoring offers the possibility of strengthening the fabric of communities through engagement and interaction among participants from different social, racial, and economic backgrounds. Mentoring program goals, often influenced by sponsor priorities, rarely focus specifically on reducing social isolation and promoting human connections as primary outcomes, but shifting to this emphasis could promote greater attention to relational practice that prioritizes the inherent value of the mentoring relationship itself. Given the long history and widespread popularity of formal youth mentoring, we suggest the field offers practice expertise, research knowledge, and organizational infrastructure as a foundation for addressing social isolation among young people. However, we also caution that youth mentoring, as a relationship-based intervention, poses potential risks if not implemented well. Issues concerning power, ethics, and social justice need to be made explicit to ensure the support of intergenerational relationships that reduce rather than reproduce social patterns of oppression, stigmatization, and inequality.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Ainsworth, M. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44(4), 709–716.
Albright, J., Hurd, N., & Hussain, S. (2017). Applying a social justice lens to youth mentoring: A review of the literature and recommendations for practice. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(3–4), 363–381.
Andersen, S. M., & Berk, M. S. (1998). The social-cognitive model of transference: Experiencing past relationships in the present. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(4), 109–115.
Anglin, J. (1999). The uniqueness of child and youth care: A personal perspective. Child & Youth Care Forum, 28(2), 143–150.
Arevalo, E., Chavira, D., Cooper, B., & Smith, M. (2014). SAFE (screening applicants for effectiveness): Guidelines to prevent child molestation in mentoring and youth-serving organizations. San Mateo, CA: Friends for Youth Inc.
Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480.
Asher, S., & Paquette, J. (2003). Loneliness and peer relations in childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 75–78.
Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.
Baxter, R., Caddie, M., & Cameron, G. B. (2016). Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous youth development concepts explored in practice today. In M. Heathfield & D. Fusco (Eds.), Youth and inequality in education: Global actions in youth work (pp. 155–172). New York: Routledge.
Berkman, L. (1984). Assessing the physical health effects of social networks and social support. Annual Review of Public Health, 5(1), 413–432.
Berkman, L. (1995). The role of social relations in health promotion. Psychosomatic Medicine, 57(3), 245–254.
Biggs, S., & Carr, C. (2015). Age- and child-friendly cities and the promise of intergenerational space. Journal of Social Work Practice, 29(1), 99–112.
Breck, B., Dennis, C., & Leedahl, S. (2018). Implementing reverse mentoring to address social isolation among older adults. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 61(5), 513–525.
Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Bockern, S. (1990/2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington: National Educational Service.
Bronk, K. (2014). Purpose in life: A critical component of optimal youth development. Dordrecht: Springer.
Bruce, M., & Bridgeland, J. (2014). The mentoring effect: Young people’s perspectives on the outcomes and availability of mentoring. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises with Hart Research Associates for MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership.
Cacioppo, J., Hawkley, L., Norman, G., & Berntson, G. (2011). Social isolation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 12311(1), 17–22.
Caspi, A., Harrington, H., Moffitt, T., Milne, B., & Poulton, R. (2006). Socially isolated children 20 years later: Risk of cardiovascular disease. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160(8), 805–811.
Checkoway, B., & Richards-Schuster, K. (2012). Youth participation in community research for racial justice. In P. Nyden, L. Hossfeld, & G. Nyden (Eds.), Public sociology: Research, action, and change (pp. 169–175). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cherlin, A. (2010). Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 403–419.
Corona, R., Rodríguez, V., McDonald, S., Velazquez, E., Rodríguez, A., & Fuentes, V. (2017). Associations between cultural stressors, cultural values, and Latina/o college students’ mental health. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(1), 63–77.
Cushing, D. F., & van Vliet, W. (2018). Intergenerational communities as healthy places for meaningful engagement and interaction. In T. Skelton, S. Punch, & R. Vanderbeck (Eds.), Families, intergenerationality, and peer group relations. Geographies of children and young people (Vol. 5). Singapore: Springer.
DuBois, D. L., Holloway, B. E., Valentine, J. C., & Cooper, H. (2002). Effectiveness of mentoring programs for youth: A meta-analytic review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30(2), 157–198.
DuBois, D. L., & Karcher, M. J. (2014). Youth mentoring in the 21st century: Progress and prospects. In D. L. Dubois & M. J. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 525–534). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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(2), 57–91.
DuBois, D. L., & Silverthorn, N. (2005). Natural mentoring relationships and adolescent health: Evidence from a national survey. American Journal of Public Health, 95(3), 518–524.
Elder, G. H. (1998). The life course as developmental theory. Child Development, 69, 1–12.
Ell, K. (1984). Social networks, social support, and health status: A review. The Social Service Review, 58(1), 133–149.
Finn, J. (2009). Making trouble: Representations of social work, youth, and pathology. In L. Nybell, J. Shook, & J. Finn (Eds.), Childhood, youth, and social work in transformation: Implications for policy and practice (pp. 37–66). New York: Columbia University Press.
Freedman, M. (1993). The kindness of strangers: Adult mentors, urban youth, and the new voluntarism. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fried, L. P., Carlson, M. C., Mcgill, S., Seeman, T., Xue, Q., Frick, K., et al. (2013). Experience corps: A dual trial to promote the health of older adults and children’s academic success. Contemporary Clinical Trials, 36(1), 1–13.
Fusco, D. (2018). Some conceptions of youth and youthwork in the United States. In P. Alldred, F. Cullen, K. Edwards, & D. Fusco (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of youth work practice (pp. 44–58). London: Sage.
Gamarel, K., Walker, J., Rivera, L., & Golub, S. (2014). Identity safety and relational health in youth spaces: A needs assessment with LGBTQ youth of color. Journal of LGBT Youth, 11, 289–315.
Garfat, T. (2012). The inter-personal in-between: An exploration of relational child and youth care practice. In G. Bellefeuille, D. Jamieson, & F. Ricks (Eds.), Standing on the precipice: Inquiry into the creative potential of child and youth care practice (pp. 7–34). Alberta: MacEwan.
Garringer, M., McQuillin, S., McDaniel, H. (2016). National Mentoring Partnership. Examining youth mentoring services across America: Findings from the 2016 national mentoring program survey. Boston, MA: MENTOR.
Goldner, L., & Mayseless, O. (2008). Juggling the roles of parents, therapists, friends and teachers—A working model for an integrative conception of mentoring. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 16(4), 412–428.
Goldner, L., & Mayseless, O. (2009). The quality of mentoring relationships and mentoring success. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(10), 1339–1350.
Goldner, L., & Scharf, M. (2014). Attachment security, the quality of the mentoring relationship and protégés’ adjustment. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 35(4), 267–279.
Greeson, J. K. P. (2013). Foster youth and the transition to adulthood: The theoretical and conceptual basis for natural mentoring. Emerging Adulthood, 1(1), 40–51.
Grossman, J., & Bulle, M. (2006). Review of what youth programs do to increase the connectedness of youth with adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(6), 788–799.
Grossman, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30(2), 199–219.
Hall-Lande, J. A., Eisenberg, M. E., Christenson, L. S., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2007). Social isolation, psychological health, and protective factors in adolescence. Adolescence, 42(166), 265–286.
Hamilton, S. F., & Hamilton, M. A. (1992). Mentoring programs: Promise and paradox. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(7), 546–550.
Haraven, T. K. (1989). Historical changes in children’s networks in the family and community. In D. Belle (Ed.), Children’s social networks and social supports (pp. 15–35). New York: Wiley.
Hartup, W. W., & Laursen, B. (1999). Relationships as developmental contexts: Retrospective themes and contemporary issues. In W. A. Collins & B. Laursen (Eds.), Relationships as developmental contexts (Vol. 30, pp. 13–35). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Hawthorne, G. (2006). Measuring social isolation in older adults: Development and initial validation of the friendship scale. Social Indicators Research, 77(3), 521–548.
Hawthorne, G. (2008). Perceived social isolation in a community sample: Its prevalence and correlates with aspects of peoples’ lives. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(2), 140–150.
Hazler, R., & Denham, S. (2002). Social isolation of youth at risk: Conceptualizations and practical implications. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80(4), 403–409.
Heinrich, L., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26(6), 695–718.
Hernandez, D. J. (1997). Child development and the social demography of childhood. Child Development, 68(1), 149–169.
Herrera, C., Grossman, J. B., Kauh, T. J., Feldman, A. F., McMaken, J., & Jucovy, L. Z. (2007). Making a difference in schools: The big brothers big sisters school-based mentoring impact study. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.
Hinde, R. A., & Stevenson-Hinde, J. (1987). Interpersonal relationships and child development. Developmental Review, 7(1), 1–21.
Karcher, M., Herrera, C., & Hansen, K. (2010). “I dunno, what do you wanna do?”: Testing a framework to guide mentor training and activity selection. New Directions for Youth Development, 126, 51–69.
Karcher, M. J., Kuperminc, G. P., Portwood, S. G., Sipe, C. L., & Taylor, A. S. (2006). Mentoring programs: A framework to inform program development, research, and evaluation. Journal of Community Psychology, 34(6), 709–725.
Keller, T. E. (2005). The stages and development of mentoring relationships. In D. L. DuBois & M. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (pp. 82–99). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Keller, T. E. (2007). Youth mentoring: Theoretical and methodological issues. In T. D. Allen & L. T. Eby (Eds.), The Blackwell handbook of mentoring: A multiple perspectives approach (pp. 23–47). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Keller, T. E., & Blakeslee, J. E. (2014). Social networks and mentoring. In D. L. Dubois & M. K. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 63–82). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Keller, T. E., & Pryce, J. M. (2010). Mutual but unequal: Mentoring as a hybrid of familiar relationship roles. New Directions for Youth Development, 126, 33–50.
Keller, T. E., & Pryce, J. M. (2012). Different roles and different results: How activity orientations correspond to relationship quality and student outcomes in school-based mentoring. Journal of Primary Prevention, 33(1), 47–64.
Kremer & Cooper. (2014). Mentor Screening & Youth Protection. In D. L. Dubois & M. K. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 411–425). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kupersmidt, J., Stump, K., Stelter, R., & Rhodes, J. (2017). Predictors of premature match closure in youth mentoring relationships. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(1–2), 25–35.
Lacey, R., Kumari, M., & Bartley, M. (2014). Social isolation in childhood and adult inflammation: Evidence from the National Child Development Study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 50, 85–94.
Larkin, E., Sadler, S., & Mahler, J. (2005). Benefits of volunteering for older adults mentoring at-risk youth. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 44(3–4), 23–37.
Laursen, B., & Hartl, A. (2013). Understanding loneliness during adolescence: Developmental changes that increase the risk of perceived social isolation. Journal of Adolescence, 36(6), 1261–1268.
Lesko, N. (1996). Denaturalizing adolescence: The politics of contemporary representations. Youth & Society, 28(2), 139–161.
Li, J., & Julian, M. M. (2012). Developmental Relationships as the active ingredient: A unifying working hypothesis of “What Works” across intervention settings. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 157–166.
Liang, B., Tracy, A. J., Taylor, C. A., & Williams, L. M. (2002). Mentoring college-age women: A relational approach. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30(2), 271–288.
LoSciuto, L., Rajala, A., Townsend, T., & Taylor, A. (1996). An outcome evaluation of across ages. Journal of Adolescent Research, 11(1), 116–129.
Lubben, J., & Gironda, M. (2003). The centrality of social ties to the health and well-being of older adults. In B. Berkman & L. K. Harootyan (Eds.), Social work and health care in an aging society: Education, policy, practice, and research. New York: Springer.
Lubben, J., Gironda, M., Sabbath, E., Kong, J., & Johnson, C. (2015). Social isolation presents a grand challenge for social work (Grand challenges for social work initiative working paper no. 7). Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
Lyons, M., McQuillin, S., & Henderson, L. (2019). Finding the sweet spot: Investigating the effects of relationship closeness and instrumental activities in school-based mentoring. American Journal of Community Psychology, 63(1–2), 88–98.
Masten, A. S., Burt, K. B., Roisman, G. I., Obradovic, J., Long, J. D., & Tellegen, A. (2004). Resources and resilience in the transition to adulthood: Continuity and change. Development and Psychopathology, 16, 1071–1094.
Masten, A. S., & Coatsworth, J. D. (1998). The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children. American Psychologist, 53(2), 205–220.
MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership. (2015). Elements of effective practice for mentoring (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Mentor.
Meshel, D., & McGlynn, R. (2004). Intergenerational contact, attitudes, and stereotypes of adolescents and older people. Educational Gerontology, 30(6), 457–479.
Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Miller, G. E., Yu, T., Chen, E., & Brody, G. H. (2015). Self-control forecasts better psychosocial outcomes but faster epigenetic aging in low-SES youth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(33), 10325–10330.
Morrow, K. V., & Styles, M. B. (1995). Building relationships with youth in program settings: A study of big brothers big sisters. Philadelphia: Public Private Venture.
Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B, 58(3), S137–S145.
Nakkula, M., & Harris, J. (2010). Beyond the dichotomy of work and fun: Measuring the thorough interrelatedness of structure and quality in youth mentoring relationships. New Directions for Youth Development, 2010(126), 71–87.
O’Brien, L. T., & Major, B. (2005). System justifying beliefs and psychological well-being: The role of group status and identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1718–1729.
Pettigrew, T., & Tropp, L. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 751–783.
Pryce, J. (2012). Mentor Attunement: An approach to successful school-based mentoring relationships. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 29(4), 285–305.
Pryce, J., Gilkerson, L., & Barry, J. (2018). The mentoring FAN: A promising approach to enhancing attunement within the mentoring system. Journal of Social Service Research, 44(3), 350–364.
Pryce, J. M., & Keller, T. E. (2013). Interpersonal tone within school-based youth mentoring relationships. Youth & Society, 45(1), 98–116.
Qualter, P., Vanhalst, J., Harris, R., Van Roekel, E., Lodder, G., Bangee, M., et al. (2015). Loneliness across the life span. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 250–264.
Rauner, D. (2000). They still pick me up when I fall: The role of caring in youth development and community life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Reis, H. T., Collins, W. A., & Berscheid, E. (2000). The relationship context of human behavior and development. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 844–872.
Rhodes, J. (2002). Stand by me: The risks and rewards of mentoring today’s youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rhodes, J. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2006). Understanding and facilitating the youth mentoring movement. SRCD Social Policy Report, 20(3), 3–20.
Rhodes, J., & DuBois, D. (2008). Mentoring relationships and programs for youth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(4), 254–258.
Rhodes, J., Liang, B., & Spencer, R. (2009). First do no harm: Ethical principles for youth mentoring relationships. Professional Psychology, Research & Practice, 40(5), 452–458.
Rogers, A., & Taylor, A. (1997). Intergenerational mentoring: A viable strategy for meeting the needs of vulnerable youth. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28(1–2), 125–140.
Rubin, K., & Coplan, R. (2004). Paying attention to and not neglecting social withdrawal and social isolation. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 50(4), 506–534.
Rubin, K., Coplan, R., & Bowker, J. (2009). Social withdrawal in childhood. Annual Review of Psychology, 60(1), 141–171.
Sass, D. A., & Karcher, M. J. (2013). Analyses of the contribution of case managers to mentor support and match outcomes. In C. Herrera, D. L. DuBois, & J. B. Grossman (Eds.), The role of risk: Mentoring experiences and outcomes for youth with varying risk profiles (pp. 120–125). New York: Public/Private Ventures Project Distributed by MDRC.
Scales, P. C., Benson, P. L., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Hintz, N. R., Sullivan, T. K., & Mannes, M. (2001). The role of neighborhood and community in building developmental assets for children and youth: A national study of social norms among American adults. Journal of Community Psychology, 29(6), 703–727.
Schulenberg, J. E., Sameroff, A. J., & Cicchetti, D. (2004). The transition to adulthood as a critical juncture in the course of psychopathology and mental health. Development and Psychopathology, 16, 799–806.
Schultz, N., & Moore, D. (1988). Loneliness: Differences across three age levels. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 5(3), 275–284.
Serido, J., Borden, L. M., & Perkins, D. F. (2011). Moving beyond youth voice. Youth & Society, 43(1), 44–63.
Sipe, C., & Roder, A. (1999). Mentoring school-age children: A classification of programs. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.
Spencer, R. (2006). Understanding the mentoring process between adolescents and adults. Youth & Society, 37(3), 287–315.
Spencer, R. (2007a). 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). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Spencer, R. (2007b). “It’s not what I expected” mentoring relationship failures. Journal of Adolescent Research, 22(4), 331–354.
Spencer, R., Jordan, J., & Sazama, J. (2004). Growth promoting relationships between youth and adults: A focus group study. Families in Society, 85, 354–362.
Spencer, R., & Liang, B. (2009). “She gives me a break from the world”: Formal youth mentoring relationships between adolescent girls and adult women. Journal of Primary Prevention, 30(2), 109–130.
Stephens, N. M., Townsend, S. S., Markus, H. R., & Phillips, L. T. (2012). A cultural mismatch: Independent cultural norms produce greater increases in cortisol and more negative emotions among first-generation college students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(6), 1389–1393.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of inter-group behavior. In S. Worchel & L. W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of inter-group relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.
Taylor, A. S., LoSciuto, L., Fox, M., Hilbert, S. M., & Sonkowsky, M. (1999). The mentoring factor: Evaluation of across ages’ intergenerational approach to drug abuse prevention. Child & Youth Services, 20(1–2), 77–99.
Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 181–227). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Victor, C., Scambler, S., & Bond, J. (2009). The social world of older people: Understanding loneliness and social isolation in later life. New York: Open University Press.
Watts, R. J., Diemer, M. A., & Voight, A. M. (2011). Critical consciousness: Current status and future directions. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 134, 43–57.
Wong, N., Zimmerman, T., & Parker, M. (2010). A typology of youth participation and empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46(1), 100–114.
Zeldin, S., Christens, B., & Powers, D. (2013). The psychology and practice of youth-adult partnership: Bridging generations for youth development and community change. American Journal of Community Psychology, 51(3), 385–397.
Zeldin, S., Petrokubi, J., & MacNeil, C. (2008). Youth-Adult partnerships in decision making: Disseminating and implementing an innovative idea into established organizations and communities. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(3–4), 262–277.
Zeldin, S., & Topitzes, D. (2002). Neighborhood experiences, community connection, and positive beliefs about adolescents among urban adults and youth. Journal of Community Psychology, 30(6), 647–669.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Keller, T.E., Perry, M. & Spencer, R. Reducing Social Isolation Through Formal Youth Mentoring: Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls. Clin Soc Work J (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-019-00727-x
- Social isolation
- Youth mentoring
- Intergenerational relationships