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First Do No Harm

Good intentions are not enough to ensure that mentors will build helpful, not harmful, relationships with their mentees.

Potential for Harm

Many mentors enter youth mentoring with heightened expectations of the experience. Program ads that highlight the joys of mentoring fuel these expectations. Most of these ads fail to discuss the everyday challenges of mentoring youth.


Mentors enter youth mentoring with a desire to make a difference. The ethical implications involved can be difficult to navigate. Youth are at risk of emotional harm when their mentors let them down by:

  • Failing to set appropriate boundaries
  • Failing to embrace their cultural differences
  • Failing to maintain their confidence
  • Setting unrealistic expectations
  • Terminating the relationship with little or no warning

Youth often grow close with their mentors. When this happens, they may feel rejected or betrayed when problems arise. These feelings may lead to adverse outcomes in behavior, school, or mental health. 

Other Adult Relationships

Mentors are not the only adult’s youth interact with outside the home.  They interact with teachers, coaches, and counselors. These specialists receive training on ethical principles developed by the American Psychological Association. These principles help them navigate the relationships.  The relationship that most closely matches mentorship is that of a counselor. 

Mentoring and counseling share certain parallels. For example:

  • Both occur outside the recipient’s network of family, friends, and neighbors. 
  • Both involve an inherent power differential.
  • Both involve scheduled “sessions.”

The most important parallel is that both aim to foster the positive development of youth. The empathetic bond between the counselor (or mentor) often results in these positive changes (Spencer & Rhodes, 2005). Counselors must follow the APA’s ethics code. That code is the basis for the ethical principles included in this course.


Training is Important

Teachers, coaches, and counselors receive valuable training that helps them navigate tricky relationships with youth. As a youth mentor, you should continue your training too. Let’s look at a mentoring example where the mentor, Marianne, used her training to navigate a tricky situation with her mentee, Tina. 

This scenario is adapted from the case illustrated in the Handbook of Youth Mentoring (Eddy et al., Special Populations 2013 378-379). If you are unable to view the video above, you can download the text version below instead. 

As an employee at FOTC, Marianne attended weekly team meetings with six other Friends to discuss current challenges, successes, and frustrations in mentoring work with children (Eddy et al., Special Populations 2013). The ongoing training and support that Marianne received as an employee at FOTC gave her the strength to continue her relationship with Tina, even when things seemed difficult. This training allowed Marianne and Tina to build a meaningful connection. Tina was able to trust Marianne.  If Marianne had not received this training, her relationship with Tina might have ended differently. 

Mentors like Marianne who receive additional training report a stronger relationship with their mentees (Deutsch et al., 2013 76).