Why boundary setting matters in mentor-mentee relationships

Setting healthy boundaries is critical when establishing mentor-mentee relationship.

Boundaries play an important role in mentoring and other youth-adult relationships. The term “boundaries” refers to the rules, guidelines, limits and standards that are expected. In mentoring, boundaries help youth, mentors and parents understand the expectations each party brings to the match. Young people need consistent boundaries and realistic expectations to feel safe physically and emotionally.

Mentoring programs will set some boundaries through their rules and policies; other boundaries will vary from mentoring match to match. A significant task for every mentor involves setting and modeling appropriate boundaries with their mentee and his or her guardians. It’s also critical that mentors reciprocally honor the boundaries of their mentees and their mentees’ guardians as they will likely have some boundaries of their own. For these reasons, programs need to provide mentors with training that helps them understand the importance of appropriate boundaries. Training should address how to work with young people to define the boundaries that will guide  their mentoring relationships. Mentors also need to understand that mentees and their parents will likely have some boundaries of their own that must be respected.

How does it feel when you know that you have crossed another person’s boundary? It can be pretty uncomfortable. For a young person, however, it can be confusing because they feel a shift in the other person’s mood, but often don’t understand why. This is why it is important for mentors to understand personal boundaries and other boundaries that are appropriate to set with their mentees. This clarification can help mentors communicate about boundaries before the mentee crosses any of them, thus opening the doors of communication and lessening the chances of having to address an uncomfortable situation. Training can also help mentors learn ways to address boundary issues with young people and their parents should they arise, in addition to helping them understand appropriate and inappropriate roles.

Many boundaries are cultural and it’s essential to set boundaries without judging behaviors. For instance, a young person may use language that the mentor finds offensive. Mentors need to remember that sometimes such language has been learned in the mentees home. Instead of labeling the language and those who use it as “bad,” mentors should address that they are uncomfortable with the language and ask that mentees not use it during their time together. Depending on the relationship, a mentor may take it further and help the mentee understand why that language may not be appropriate in certain settings. It is critical that mentors not make judgments about those who use inappropriate language.

Young people need to have appropriate boundaries throughout all of their social systems. Mentors and mentees should negotiate boundaries carefully because while having no boundaries can harm the relationship, having too many can incapacitate the relationship.  Mentees may misinterpret existing boundaries if they are not consistent or if too few boundaries are set.

For additional information or mentor training materials related to boundaries, please contact Lisa Bottomley at lbottoml@msu.edu.

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