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Why do mentoring relationships break down?

Successful mentoring has the capacity to improve young people’s lives, and can provide a cost effective means to offer targeted individual support to young people who might benefit from individual support and encouragement (Brooker, 2011). However, relationships that end prematurely have the capacity to damage both the mentee/protégé and the mentor. For this reason it is very important to understand in a detailed way how and why some relationships end prematurely fail, and what strategies might be effective to avoid or minimize mentoring relationship breakdowns. Existing research indicates that the potential reasons early termination for failure are likely to be both varied and complex, and the means to prevent or reduce failure are likely to involve multiple strategies. This research investigated the relationships between factors that contribute to mentoring relationship breakdown, and provided an indication of how interventions might reduce mentoring breakdown. This provided the ground work for the possibility of future research to examine efficacy of different types of mentoring intervention processes (for example, initial training, on-going training, and supervision for mentors; matching procedures; mentee access to other support programs; mentee selection and mentor selection; and structure in mentoring processes).

Until this project, research on mentoring had focused on the positive outcomes of mentoring and the characteristics of effective mentoring programs. Reviews of research on youth mentoring (Brooker, 2011) and meta-analyses and reviews of evaluations of youth mentoring programs (DuBois, Holloway, Valentine and Cooper, 2002; Grossman & Rhodes, 2002; MacCallum & Brooker, 2012) have pointed to the importance of quality ongoing mentoring relationships for positive socio-emotional, educational and life skill outcomes.  

This project acknowledged the importance of reducing the risk of mentoring relationships breaking down because:

  • There is a shortage of volunteer mentors, which means that to maximize the contribution of mentors it is important to prevent breakdowns;
  • When mentoring relationships breakdown, the effects on young people may be worse than if they had never been offered mentoring; and
  • Participation in a mentoring relationship that has broken down may reduce the confidence of a mentor to volunteer for further mentoring, thus potentially exacerbating the shortage of mentors and mentoring opportunities for young people.

To examine the research question why some mentoring relationships break down we conducted a phenomenological study of perceptions of premature termination of mentoring relationships. We interviewed mentors to find their perceptions of what happened, what they felt about what happened and whether they believed that anything could have been done, either to prevent the breakdown or to provide them with more support to reduce any negative outcomes of the experience. Our sample was drawn from four well-established youth mentoring programs in Western Australia. In order to minimise the effects of variability in program quality, the mentoring programs chosen, meet the Australian Youth Mentoring Benchmarks (AYMN, 2012).

Funding agency

Department for Communities

Project duration



Associate Professor Trudi Cooper
Murdoch University, Associate Professor Judith MacCallum
The University of Notre Dame, Dr Anne Coffey
Curtin University, Dr Susan Beltman

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