Natural Mentoring Relationships: The Mediating Impact on Negative Behaviors During Adolescence

As of 2017, researchers in the United States have found that about half of all children in the country will be exposed to some form of childhood adversity (McLaughlin, 2017). This has increased since 1995 from a quarter of all children. So, what is childhood adversity and how did researchers determine how to define childhood adversity? From 1995-1997, a study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente data were collected with over 17,000 participants answering confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviors (CDC, 2016). Researchers identified three groups of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), with three subgroups totaling 10 ACE categories:

  • Abuse
    • Physical
    • Emotional
    • Sexual
  • Neglect
    • Physical
    • Emotional
  • Household Dysfunction
    • Mental illness
    • Mother treated violently
    • Divorce
    • Incarcerated relative
    • Substance abuse (CDC, 2016)

Results of the two-year study concluded that those who experience ACEs are more likely to suffer from negative life outcomes including risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and premature death (CDC, 2016). Since the original study on ACEs, researchers have been able to link experiences of childhood adversity to negative behavioral outcomes during adolescence. Even more startling, children exposed to high levels of adversity are more than four times more likely to develop a mental disorder in adulthood than their counterparts. Negative behavioral outcomes and mental disorders can be attributed to disrupted brain development during the time when the child experiences adverse events. If the adversity is ongoing for a prolonged period of time, brain development can be even more severely stunted.


For example, we know through decades of research that the brain develops at different times from birth through 30 years old. This happens in a bottom-up fashion – beginning with the brainstem and fully developing through limbic and cortical areas (Perry, Pollard, Blakeley, Baker, Vigilante, 1995, p. 276). Disruptions to typical brain development can include:

  • Emotion regulation
  • Memory
  • Arousal
  • Lack of moral reasoning
  • Poor inhibition and attention control
  • Inappropriate emotion processing

These disruptions to typical brain development can alter behaviors during adolescence which will put them at higher risk of using substances, entering unhealthy intimate relationships, and even replicating some ACEs such as incarceration.

As a parent, teacher, coach, family member, or anyone who has close relationships with children, what can you do to help disrupt the negative impact of ACEs for adolescents?  Natural mentoring relationships have been shown to have a reparative effect on adolescents who have experienced earlier childhood adversity. In a study from 1997, researchers aimed to understand the nature of the relationships between having a natural mentor and outcome variables such as alcohol use, marijuana use, and delinquent behavior. Participants included 770 adolescents a longitudinal study of school dropout and drug use in a large Midwestern city (Bingenheimer & Zimmerman, 2002). Students in their first year of high school with a GPA of 3.0 and below were selected.

Of 770 adolescents in this study, 414 (53.8%) reported having a natural mentor. The most common natural mentor was an extended family member such as an aunt/uncle, cousin, or grandparent. About 10% of natural mentors were professionals such as teachers, coaches, counselors, or ministers. Godparents and God-siblings were also another identified type of mentor: 6.7%. Youths with natural mentors reported having more positive attitudes than their counterparts. Having a natural mentor also associated with lower levels of problem behaviors. Youth with natural mentors also reported less marijuana use and fewer non-violent delinquent behaviors. They were also more likely to enjoy school and believe that success in school is important and that they were capable of that success (Bingenheimer & Zimmerman, 2002).

Although rates of childhood adversity are at its highest, a natural mentoring relationship has been proven to be a mediating factor in negative behavioral outcomes. Natural mentors such as extended family members, teachers, coaches, counselors, and ministers have a positive impact on the trajectory of adolescents who have experienced childhood trauma. These mentoring relationships can be provided through after-school programs, sports, religious services, or at home with extended family members. Although prevention of ACEs is likely the most appropriate first step in ensuring appropriate brain development and positive behavior outcomes, intervention such as natural mentors is a powerful and reparative relationship to improve behavioral outcomes.



Bingenheimer, Jeffrey B., Marc A Zimmerman. (2002). Natural mentors and adolescent

resiliency: a study with urban youth. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Vol.30(2), pp.221-43. doi: 10.1023/A:1014632911622.


McLaughlin, Katie. (2017). The long shadow of adverse childhood experiences. APA. Retrieved

on April 8, 2018, from


Perry, B.D. Pollard, R.A., Blakeley, T.L., Baker, W.L., Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma,

the neurobiology of adaptation and “Use-dependent” development of the brain: how “States” become “Traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal. 16.4.: 271-293.


Written by Natalie Casey, LPC