Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

What makes a strong relationship?

Before we can introduce best practices for building relationships, let’s start with identifying what makes a strong relationship? There are 3 main pillars that contribute to creating a positive, mutually beneficial relationship:


A positive emotional connection between youth and mentor. Both parties trust and care for each other, and want the relationship to succeed. 


Youth and mentor work together and collaborate toward a shared goal, and they share personal thoughts and feelings. A strong connection is built by more than just having fun together.

Agreement on Goals and Approaches

Youth and mentor have a shared understanding of the challenges and needs of the youth, including any behavioral or mental health goals, and the approach chosen. 

Getting to Know Each Other and Building Trust

Building a strong relationship can take time and sometimes has to be approached gently. 

The first step is to get to know your mentee and create a genuine relationship based on trust. This itself can be quite an accomplishment for a young person who has experienced significant disruptions in their important relationships. Some mentees may be wary of new adults and rightly so. With patience, time, and paying close attention to the needs of the young person, trust can be built.

Click on the topics heading below to learn more about best practices and approaches to creating a strong alliance.

Source:  Karver, M. S., De Nadai, A. S., Monahan, M., & Shirk, S. R. (2018). Meta-analysis of the prospective relation between alliance and outcome in child and adolescent psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 341.

Strengths-based approach

Being strengths-based is a mindset that focuses on young people’s positive attributes, rather than their difficult ones. When we look through a strength lens, even problems can be better understood and framed. 

For example, we can see the confrontational teen as caring and committed to their values, or the rule-breaker as someone who is independent and craves self-expression. Once recognized, these strengths can become our doorway to understanding and appreciating our mentees, connecting with them, and building lasting relationships. 

It’s important to note that this approach doesn’t ignore the difficulties, rather it puts their struggles into a broader, more balanced context.

How can you identify strengths? Ask them! Many of us are able to identify our positive attributes. But, if you notice it is really hard for your mentee to identify their strengths, this can be a great first task to work on together as a team.

Additional resources: 

Voice and choice

Respecting mentees also means listening to their points of view and empowering them to make decisions regarding their work with us. While you might get important information and input from caregivers, teachers, and other service providers, it is the mentee’s perspective that should be front and center. 

Ask questions, listen carefully to the answers, and collaboratively decide on goals and approaches. Focus on open-ended questions and let your mentee determine the pace of the conversation. Find out what your mentee values, and what might be important to them (e.g. family, school, friends.)

For some mentees, it may take a while for them to feel comfortable enough with a new adult to share their thoughts and ideas. You may have to carry the load yourself for a while, but be patient, watch and listen carefully, and try to tune in to who your mentee is and wants to be.


Make it clear to mentees that the information that they share with you is kept confidential to the best of your ability. Mentees will naturally be hesitant to share private information, especially around struggles, trauma, and mental health issues that are taboo or stigmatized. 

Build trust gradually as you prove you’re keeping private conversations private, and inform the mentee if there are reasons why you have to disclose the information (safety, mandatory reporting, etc.).


Demonstrate to your mentee that you are listening to their feelings and seeing their points of view, especially when in disagreement with caregivers or teachers. This does not mean the mentee is always right, but that you should sympathize and show that you are trying to understand how they feel and that you can relate to their feelings in the situation. This starts with active listening techniques such as summarizing or paraphrasing what you heard to ensure your understanding is correct. Reflecting back to your mentee will help build trust and help them feel heard. 

Also, don’t forget to be yourself and be emotionally present and invested. Genuineness, warmth, a calm presence, and consistency are all fundamental to establishing a good emotional connection with youth. 

Additional resource:

Acceptance and validation

In order to share and discuss sensitive issues such as mental health, sexual identity, or trauma, mentees need to feel accepted no matter what they reveal. It’s important to demonstrate acceptance regardless of their issues or of their race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other characteristics. 

As with the other principles, start early and build on trust as the mentee shares more about their private thoughts and feelings. 

Also, be aware that mentees may tell you about things their friends do and say as a way to gauge how you may react to them in similar circumstances (e.g. “My friends are thinking of getting high at the party tomorrow”). Be cautious about expressing judgment. Instead try to listen, reflect, and connect by being open and interested in your mentee’s thoughts and feelings.

When practicing acceptance and validation, remember to focus on your mentees’ experiences and not your own. Although you may be pulled to share similar examples or experiences from your own life, it is important to keep the focus on the mentee. Even though it might feel useful, try not to shift the focus on your own experiences.