Understanding the nature of boundaries is key to mentor-mentee relationships

Setting healthy boundaries in mentoring relationships begins with an understanding of how they work.

Boundaries – every person has them and every person wants others to respect them. Formally establishing them however, may seem like a daunting task for a mentor trying to form a relationship with a mentee and his or her family. When setting boundaries, volunteers must consider organizational rules, personal preferences, societal expectations and the well-being of their mentees.

Young people learn about boundaries by watching adults. Youth see how we interact with others and often mimic these behaviors.  For this reason, mentors should model proper boundaries, help young people in setting their own limits and provide positive reinforcement by respecting their boundaries. Youth are particularly concerned with having their boundaries respected.  When mentors ask young people personal questions too early in the relationship, the most common response is silence.  Therefore, mentors must remember to also respect their mentees’ needs for privacy.

Having and setting boundaries are two different things. If a person has ever felt used or walked on, chances are that their boundaries were crossed, perhaps because the boundaries were not set and reinforced at the onset of the relationship. We convey our boundaries with others through verbal and nonverbal communication.

Here are a few examples:

  • Marcus steps back when someone invades his personal space.
  • Kenisha stiffens up when someone offers an unwelcome hug or sign of affection.
  • Molly’s facial expression shows disdain for language that she finds to be offensive.
  • Susan ends a social networking friendship with a colleague who frequently posts political opinions.
  • Jose interrupts the conversation if someone starts to share “too much information.”
  • Kea tells people not to call after a certain time at night.
  • Harold does not respond to work requests outside of work hours.

Our boundaries generally vary between relationships. For instance, consider boundaries related to personal space. You likely have people in your life with whom you are comfortable standing or sitting in close proximity, while there are others that you prefer to keep at a greater distance.

It is also important to note that we all have different boundaries. Some people have very rigid boundaries about their time, while others are rarely concerned with time. Every person has his or her own comfort level with different behaviors – that comfort level changes depending on the context of the relationship. 

An added layer to the boundaries conversation is that of social and professional expectations. A person may not have strong boundaries regarding punctuality, however, in his or her professional life, that person may need to adjust to meet professional requirements for being on-time.

Mentors should also be prepared for young people to test boundaries. Testing boundaries is natural – it’sis how we learn about the expectations of a relationship.  When a boundary is crossed, it should be addressed in a caring way. Young people are not the only ones who test boundaries – their parents may test boundaries, too.  It is not uncommon for parents to ask to borrow money from the mentor or see mentors as potential child care providers.

Contact Lisa Bottomley at lbottoml@msu.edu for more information.

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