From Oprah Winfrey to Emma Watson, Barack Obama and Stephen King, so many famous people – from musician to sports figures, writers to actors, entrepreneurs to tech geniuses – have such a powerful impact on young people today. Both kids and teens look to various savvy, self-possessed people as role models for inspiration and a sense of self, for a clue on how to model themselves and navigate the world.

How much more powerful would that role model be if it were someone a child knew rather than a far-off celebrity?

Real person with real problems and weaknesses. Someone close to them who they trust, who’d give them one-on-one attention. In short, a mentor, and a non-parent one at that – someone who doesn’t treat his mentee like an equal, but also doesn’t treat him like fragile short people.

From spending quality time with them and helping them feel heard, to offering them support with everything from school and relationships to hobbies and opportunities, a mentor can not just be a confidant but a source of trusted advice too. Studies have shown that having a caring, responsible adult who believes in them can make a world of difference to a child’s life, and also reduce their likelihood of engaging in risky behaviour.

[How to boost your career with a mentor]

A North Carolina State University of more than 12,000 people in their teens and early 20s found having a mentor provides a clear benefit well into kids’ working lives. This is especially true with a relationship formed naturally rather than a formal mentoring programme, the research found.

Keegan with Hannah – he says not preaching, being nosy or behaving as an authority helps kids open up
Stefan Lindeque

For young people at a crucial, formative stage, having someone they look up to and admire helping them move through life’s transitions can prove to be just the right nudge down a more productive path. Benefits from this relationship include everything from a raise in self-esteem, an encouragement of new skills and interests, or even just having fun in a safe environment.

Mentors exhibit qualities such as empathy and good listening skills, are non-judgemental and flexible, and are committed and consistent. They play an important role in a young person’s life, at least helping kids identify their strengths, at most shaping entire futures.

Because as the basic tenet of role models go, you have to see it to be it.

Formal mentoring programmes are available, but the process also works informally through anyone from a coach to a neighbour to a co-worker or family friend of yours. And it can be a proactive process, not just reactive – ie, you don’t have to wait for a child to start failing or set off on a problematic path to get them a mentor. A guiding, nurturing hand through childhood, and especially through adolescence, can make all the difference.

Dubai resident Tanya D’souza found herself needing that helping hand three years ago when her then 14-year-old daughter Hannah moved schools. ‘Hannah had always confided in me until then,’ she says. ‘But in the new school, with a mix of boys and girls, she got a little lost. I noticed she started drifting away. There were girls of different natures, the curriculum was different… Hannah developed trust issues, and seemed to be let down by someone every time. She had no friends at that point. There was a clan and she was not a part of it. Though in its own way that made her strong, I know she was lonely. That’s when Keegan came into the picture.’

The family – Hannah, her mum and dad Praveen and her younger sister Sarah – had joined a church programme where Keegan Silveira was a youth leader. ‘He was also part of a band, very easygoing and genuine, always making us and Hannah laugh.’ Soon Keegan became good friends with Hannah’s parents, and the family met him often. Hannah and Keegan started talking a lot, and she found he always came with a lot of good advice. Soon the teen was confiding in him on various issues she hadn’t discussed with anyone. ‘There was not much of an age gap between us, which helped him understand more I think,’ Hannah says. ‘I thought he had some really good inputs and solutions. He didn’t annoy me, he didn’t cross a line with advice to the point where I didn’t want to listen to him anymore, as happens with adults often, and he wasn’t so nosy that I felt I had to clam up. He was a sort of messenger between my parents and me. We also had fun chats together – we’d have healthy debates on how my generation thinks, we liked similar TV shows.’

Keegan, 31, who works in advertising, says their relationship didn’t start off as easy as it sounds. ‘It took Hannah quite a while to get comfortable confiding in me,’ he says. ‘About a few months.’ But the drawn-out timeframe was nothing new to Keegan in his role as a youth leader, meeting up with about 20 youngsters a week. ‘Young people usually don’t want adults in their space until they are very sure of them,’ he says. ‘They’re not comfortable sharing a lot with their parents, but they do need – and want – someone to be there for them.’

Hannah with her dad, mum, sister and Shih-tzu
Stefan Lindeque

Through the next few months, via texts, phone calls and meetings, he talked Hannah through her challenges with friends, on how she could choose the right path under peer pressure, and on how to be tolerant – how to be friends with someone of a completely different belief system. ‘Talked’ being the operative word here, taking weight over counselling. ‘I always made sure I didn’t sound preachy,’ he says. ‘It’s two ways – I also have to show I have certain weaknesses and show I have been able to overcome them, that I’m as human as them – then they feel they can confide in me. This is often why parents’ approach doesn’t work, I feel. They never show they struggle, they always show they are an authority.’

So he showed Hannah that he would understand where she was coming from, but he also reinforced that not everything was acceptable – as a mentor he drew the line. Yes, she could go partying and experience life, but yes there were limits, and she had to stick to them – from healthy boundaries in relationships to not allowing peers to coax her into harmful habits.

Anne Jackson, wellness and life coach at Dubai-based centre One Life Coaching, understands the parenting dilemma all too well. Because parents are emotionally involved and invested in their children, they will have formed opinions that blind them to who their children have become or can become, she says. These opinions can often be biased or limiting, without the parent wanting it to be. ‘For example, a child might mention wanting to be a pilot, and the parent might immediately reply that they can’t because of their vision or being clumsy etc. A mentor who is not so emotionally invested can often hold that child up in a higher or even more realistic regard. Besides, parents and children often don’t discuss everything for fear of hurting the other party. With a mentor the child feels more at ease to discuss and explore topics without feeling pressured to keep in mind the feelings of the adult they are talking to.’

Anne refers to a mentor as a safe space for the child to talk and explore with no judgements, leading to empowering the child and building self-confidence ‘so the child, and a teen especially, will be happier and feel better about themselves in all relationships, with parents and others.’

Should you vet a mentor for your adolescent, or let them choose who they are comfortable talking to? The latter, says Anne. It gives children, especially teens, a greater sense of empowerment and hence confidence to be able to pick their own mentor, she says. There’s a caveat. ‘Hopefully parents will have brought up their children with similar values as themselves so one would assume that the child will feel most comfortable with a mentor of similar values too. However, it is always up to the grown-up to intervene if the child has chosen a mentor that might be harmful or abusive to the child.’

Sharjah resident Christina Chavez-Molina did a bit of both – she narrowed down a list for her home-schooled 13-year-old daughter Christeen, or Cake as she’s called, and then she let her choose. ‘I have always told Cake it’s her choice, and that if she feels she wanted to open up to somebody we trust besides her parents, she could. But at the same time, I also introduced and surrounded her and her brother with people who I knew would give wise counsel – relatives, coaches, family friends. I did this so they wouldn’t have to resort to google, where it’s so easy to come across wrong information, or info not meant for their age.’

13-year-old Cake says Leland helped her find her voice, talk to more people and make friends
Anas Thacharpadikkal

So Cake made a beeline for Christina’s best friend Leland Lea Stanislas. Shy Cake was drawn to 38-year-old Leland’s bubbly nature. ‘Leland brought out Cake’s fun side,’ Christina smiles. ‘They started having long conversations on various things happening in Cake’s life.’ And with Cake entering her teens, Christina is all the more thankful for their relationship. ‘Even if Cake and I are close and me and her dad think we know her personality fully or what she is going through, there will be things she and her brother won’t necessarily talk to us about. There should be someone she can go to for questions. I’m glad she knows there’s somebody else besides us.’

And as Leland, who works as facilities coordinator, comes less as an authoritative figure, helping her see other perspectives and opinions, Cake isn’t cautious around her. The teen says while she ordinarily has not liked opening up, Leland’s outgoing nature helped her with being friendly and talking to people more. ‘I’m comfortable with Leland because she talks to me like a friend, and not like she’s a parent,’ she says. ‘I’m inspired by Leland’s character and how nice she is to people. We laugh with each other, and she tells me her stories, and what she’s learnt from various decisions she’s made and various situations in life. I take away quite a few lessons from that, whether it is to do with friends or studies. I observe her interactions with others and often try replicate that. I also know she’d give me any good advice on anything I ask her.’

Leland says she won reserved Cake’s trust because she promised her she wouldn’t tell her mum what she disclosed – ‘the key is to respect them, however young they are,’ she says. ‘Of course, if it involves something that might hurt her or put her in danger, I’ll warn her beforehand that I’m going to be speaking to her mum. But otherwise I honour my word.’

Trust is a keyword that’s doubled down on through every mentor-mentee relationship. And a lot of it depends on the parent abiding by the unspoken rules of the relationship. Tanya says she has a policy: Of never asking Keegan what Hannah has said to him. ‘I respect her privacy, her questions and Keegan’s answers to them. You have to give space to a mentor, or the child could end up never learning to trust anyone. You have to be careful with who their kids speak to of course, but also have to not get in the way if it’s a mentor you know.’ Christina has a similar policy.

Cake with her mum, dad and little brother
Anas Thacharpadikkal

What a mentor isn’t is a psychologist or babysitter, and definitely not a substitute parent. They aren’t actively trying to be a role model, but take an active interest in the child’s development, be it academically, socially or emotionally.

Which brings us full circle and lands the weight firmly on a parent’s shoulder again: communication between the parent and child is key. It’s emphasised by all three parties: the child, parent and mentor.

Keegan stresses on how important it is that parents are there and are flexible with restrictions. ‘They need to be open to discuss issues, and to listen. It’s not going to work without that support.’

Hannah is in agreement. ‘I believe your parents should be the most approachable, and mine are, so it was all so much easier. It’s important for me to be able to confide in my parents too as I know they always have the best intentions and that they would place my needs and welfare on top.’

Is a mentor especially important for young girls, reminding them that their gender does not shackle them, for them to see women be honest about the difficulties they have faced, away from idealised images and lifestyles? For Leland her bond with Cake carries added meaning as growing up she never had someone she felt she could share anything with, to get real perspectives shaping her worldview, without a programming of prejudice. ‘And as women, we feel what girls feel, we have gone through the same things. I tell my daughter as well that if she’s not comfortable talking to me she can speak to someone else, like my sister-in-law. Girls need to see more powerful women as role models.’

With a 10-year-old son, Christina is quick to interject how vital a mentor is for both boys and girls. ‘Boys have questions on puberty, and all the changes and concerns then. They might be different matters, but they are equally important matters.’

Keegan is well aware of his disadvantage in this aspect, with a girl mentee, and has found a way out: He ropes in his wife Larina. ‘If I don’t have an answer, I admit I don’t, and ask my wife. The way girls think and their problems are different, of course, and I’ve never been on that side. They have that much more pressure with social media to stand out, and do things to please others than to please themselves. Much more than at our age; now your life is out there and you have to be acceptable to the whole world.’

And with social media ramping up those expectations of physical appearance, it’s not just girls, but boys who are encouraged to replicate those unrealistic ideals. Anne agrees that there’s no gender advantage here anymore. ‘Boys and girls, both have self-confidence issues. Gone are the days where boys had more social freedom... Both are now vulnerable as social media has opened a whole new world for these teens with many more pressures and tensions than we ever faced back in the day – all of which now accessed straight from their bedroom!’

All the more reason to be keeping the path of a mentor open. ‘This is important especially at the teenager stage, where it could cause more harm than good for them to go to just about anyone to talk to, or seek reinforcement online,’ Leland stresses. ‘Social media has a great impact on how teens dress up, speak, see things, so it’s key to have a balance with a model of good behaviour in the form of a mentor.’

And with that balance and that strong backing, Hannah took off by herself and there was no turning back, her mum says. ‘She’s always been very intuitive, and I noticed she started understanding people more, became a firm decision maker and changed her subjects, deciding she wanted to do psychology.’

Sometimes that’s all a child might want to feel: reassured and acknowledged. Keegan says Hannah needed to know that tough times were inevitable. ‘But what she also needed to believe in her heart was that it will pass and life will get OK. Because it will.’