Attachment and Mentoring
October 3, 2018

Attachment is described by psychologists as an “enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Though attachment is a term used mostly in infancy, its presence and importance can be seen throughout the lifespan. For children who have suffered the loss of an attachment figure to incarceration, mentors can possibly serve as “attachment surrogates” and can provide support if they show sensitivity and responsiveness to the youth’s need

Youth might display differences in attachment styles, which affect the way they seek support. Types of support people seek:

  • Proximity – comfort provided by being physically or emotionally present
  • Safe Haven – practical and emotional support in times of distress until the threat has passed or is dealt with successfully
  • Secure Base – helping a person pursue personal goals in safe and effective ways

While each person is born with the need for attachment, John Bowlby, psychologist and expert on attachment, also believed people are born with an innate ability to provide protection to others in need through empathy, compassion, a desire to reduce other people’s suffering and foster growth.

For children with incarcerated parents, physical separation, loss of contact, and changes in quantity and quality of interactions with that parent may affect their parent-child attachment. While not every child enters the mentoring relationship with a solid background of healthy friendships and connections with family and caregivers, research has demonstrated that strong mentoring relationships can be a form of secondary attachment, which can serve to establish expectations around safety, opportunities for growth, unconditional regard, active engagement, and empathy. These strong mentoring relationships must be built on bonds of trust, honesty, consistency, reliability, and authenticity. The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring comments that, “If experienced consistently, positive relationships can help a youth reframe their understanding of what a “normal” relationship can be.”

Like any normal relationship, the mentoring relationship will not be without its bumps and hiccups along the way. The Chronicle also states, “Mentors must be ready to recognize and repair any rifts that occur with their mentee.” This can be a valuable learning opportunity for both mentee and mentor, allowing both to see that difficulties in relationships can be acknowledged, openly faced, and handled collaboratively.

Lastly, when the relationship must, for one reason or another, come to an end, youth who have suffered loss and disrupted relationships may need extra help in forming and handling the closure of the mentoring relationship. It is critical that closures be planned in advance and framed in a positive light. Rather than leaving the mentee feeling abandoned, rejected, and powerless, a well planned goodbye can highlight the good experience of the mentoring relationship, celebrate all that was learned together, and leave the mentee feeling valued. A positive closure experience can give a mentee the gift of a loss that is non-traumatic. As they learn to cope with all the feelings that come in even the best goodbyes, youth can transfer this lesson to future relationships and life events.

by Juli Wiegman

Seedling Program


Resources used: “What is “attachment” and how does it relate to mentoring?” by Laura Yoviene, “An attachment perspective on incarcerated parents and their children” by Jean Rhodes, “The legacy of early relationships: How attachment styles shape mentoring” by Jean Rhodes, and “Smoothing bumps in the road: Research uses attachment theory to improve mentoring practice” by Justin Preston.

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