The purpose of this study was to examine the role of the self-disclosure process in regard to connection development and relationship quality in peer mentoring relationships between transition-age youth (ages 15–20) and young adults (ages 18–36) with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Self-disclosure is defined as “the disclosure of inner feelings and experiences to another person” that “fosters liking, caring, and trust, thereby facilitating the deepening of close relationships” (Reis & Shaver, 1988, p. 372). Nine peer mentoring dyads with varied interpersonal connections were purposefully selected from a larger intervention study. Recorded mentoring conversations were analyzed for self-disclosure content and peer mentor response. The findings demonstrated trends related to connection development and differences across degree of connection. In relationships with stronger connections, there was a higher quantity of self-disclosure and more frequent disclosure of emotions, and peer mentors responded more frequently with advice and reciprocated self-disclosure. Implications of findings for promoting higher-quality peer mentoring relationships are discussed.
The effectiveness of quality mentoring relationships in supporting positive outcomes has been repeatedly demonstrated, including increased problem-solving skills, goal achievement, and identity development (Britner, Balcazar, Blechman, Blinn-Pike, & Larose, 2006; Deutsch & Spencer, 2009; Rhodes & Lowe, 2009). These potential outcomes are particularly relevant for transition-age youth (ages 15 to 20) with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) and may help address decreased rates of social participation and employment (Bedell et al., 2013; Harris Interactive, 2010; Shattuck, Orsmond, Wagner, & Cooper, 2011). Despite these potential benefits, historically, few mentoring programs have included this population in either the mentor or mentee role (Ahrens, Dubois, Lozano, & Richardson, 2010; Bell, 2012; Britner et al., 2006; Shpigelman & Gill, 2012; Stumbo, Blegen, & Lindahl-Lewis, 2008). Individuals with IDD have had success in roles similar to mentoring, such as supporting skill development as peer tutors (Bobroff & Sax, 2010; Hibbert, Kostinas, & Luiselli, 2002), further highlighting the potential of peer mentoring in supporting positive outcomes for transition-age youth with IDD. However, mentoring relationships for youth with IDD may differ from others, particularly in the need for greater structure (Rhodes and Lowe, 2009). Thus, there is a need to examine the processes that lead to high-quality mentoring relationships for transition-age youth with IDD in order to support potential positive outcomes.
Examining the quality of mentoring relationships, as with any type of relationship, presents a challenge due to the number and complexity of factors involved in the development and maintenance of these relationships. Deutsch and Spencer (2009) provided a framework for evaluating the quality of mentoring relationships. They defined four dimensions that influence the overall relationship quality: duration, consistency and frequency, mentor approach, and connection. Connection, which includes the sense of trust and overall bond developed between the mentor and mentee, may be the most significant dimension as it is consistently cited throughout the literature (Deutsch & Spencer, 2009; Rhodes & Lowe, 2009, Shpigelman & Gill, 2012). Connection is a core assumption of mentoring interventions (Thomson & Zand, 2010) and has been related to higher-quality relationships and positive outcomes (Deutsch & Spencer, 2009; Thomson & Zand, 2010). In addition, connection likely has reciprocal relationships with the other dimensions of quality defined by Deutsch and Spencer (2009). For example, relationships with stronger connections may be maintained over a longer duration compared to relationships with weaker connections, and long-term relationships also provide more opportunities for connection development (Deutsch & Spencer, 2009). Therefore, connection likely both influences and is influenced by duration of the relationship. However, there has been little examination of the interpersonal processes that may contribute to connection development in mentoring relationships (Spencer, 2006) and, thus, there is a need for further investigation in this area (Spencer, 2006; Thomson & Zand, 2010).
Despite the limited evidence related to connection development in the mentoring literature, the broader literature on relationship development provides some guidance for identifying possible mechanisms. One interpersonal process that has been examined in the literature on relationship development is self-disclosure (Reis & Shaver, 1988). Self-disclosure is defined as “the disclosure of inner feelings and experiences to another person” that “fosters liking, caring, and trust, thereby facilitating the deepening of close relationships” (Reis & Shaver, 1988, p. 372). The self-disclosure process includes a dynamic interaction between two individuals in which one individual self-discloses, the second individual responds to the self- disclosure, and the first individual interprets the response (Reis & Shaver, 1988). These individual interactions then influence the willingness of an individual to self-disclose again. Reis and Shaver (1988) proposed that the sum of individual interactions affects the degree of closeness within a relationship and overall relationship development. Recently, the role of self-disclosure has been considered in mentoring relationship quality (Thomson & Zand, 2010; Wanberg, Welsh, & Kammeyer-Mueller, 2007). Thomson and Zand (2010) showed a predictive relationship between youths' self-disclosure to adult mentors and reported mentoring relationship quality. In a corporate work context, mentee self-disclosure was positively related to mentee satisfaction in the relationship (Wanberg et al., 2007). However, the self-disclosure process has not been examined in the context of mentoring relationships that include individuals with IDD.
Within the self-disclosure process, the occurrence as well as the content of self-disclosure has implications for the development of a connection (Reis & Shaver, 1988). The type of information mentees disclose can vary greatly from personal facts, referred to as “descriptive information,” to feelings, judgments, and opinions, referred to as “evaluative information” (Laurenceau, Barrett, & Pietromonaco, 1998; Reis & Shaver, 1988). Evaluative self-disclosures can be further expanded to distinguish between positive and negative emotions. Howell and Conway (1990) showed that positive emotions are often judged to be more appropriate to self-disclose to all individuals, while negative emotions are considered to be more intimate and more appropriate for close relationships. Due to the perceived intimacy of evaluative disclosures, a stronger connection may develop when the mentor and mentee are willing to self-disclose emotions (Laurenceau et al., 1998), and disclosure of negative emotions may be indicative of a stronger connection (Howell & Conway, 1990).
The mentor's response to self-disclosure is a significant aspect of relationship development that should also be explored (Reis & Shaver, 1988). Many relationship development theories include an element of interdependence between the two individuals (Clark & Reis, 1988) and propose that a greater connection should form when the content of the response from the mentor is equivalent to the content of the self-disclosure by the mentee (Ensher, Thomas, & Murphy, 2001; Reis & Shaver, 1988). The mentor's response can be described as either “conversational” or “relational.” Conversational responses are defined as responses to disclosure “through which the recipient indicates interest in and understanding of that communication” (Berg, 1987, p. 102). Relational responses are defined as responses that “indicate that he or she is concerned with and taking account of another's outcomes or needs” (Berg, 1987, p. 103). Relational responses may facilitate greater development of a connection, as they may have a greater potential to reciprocate the intimacy of a disclosure (Ensher et al., 2001; Reis & Shaver, 1988).
To further understand how the process of self-disclosure may influence the development of connection and mentoring relationship quality, the authors propose a theoretical model (Figure 1), which integrates the theoretical literature on self-disclosure and relationship development. This model proposes the process of self-disclosure as a mechanism for the development of connection and a quality mentoring relationship. As shown in Figure 1, the self-disclosure process begins with self-disclosure of descriptive or evaluative information by the mentee (Laurenceau et al., 1998). Following disclosure, the mentor has the opportunity to respond, which may take various forms including conversational and relational responses (Berg, 1987). The process then shifts back to the mentee, who interprets the mentor's response based on the degree to which the response fulfills the mentee's needs and expectations (Ensher et al., 2001; Reis & Shaver, 1988). The mentee's interpretation of this interaction affects the development of connection and the likelihood that the mentee will self-disclose again (Reis & Shaver, 1988). The model proposes that the self-disclosure process operates as a feedback loop in which individual interactions continuously impact connection development and mentoring relationship quality. Degree of connection and overall relationship quality then influence the initiation of the self-disclosure process (Reis & Shaver, 1988).
This study is part of a larger multisite study examining the effectiveness of Project TEAM (Teens making Environment and Activity Modifications), a problem-solving and advocacy program for transition-age youth with IDD (Kramer, 2015; Kramer et al., 2013; Kramer, Roemer, Liljenquist, Shin, & Hart, 2014). A component of Project TEAM is a peer mentoring relationship between a mentee and a mentor, both of whom have an intellectual and/or developmental disability. This research study used a qualitative approach to examine the self-disclosure process in the context of the Project TEAM peer mentoring relationship. Our research questions asked:
What do transition-age youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities self-disclose in structured peer mentoring relationships?
How do peer mentors with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities respond to self-disclosure?
How are patterns in self-disclosure and response related to perceived degree of connection in peer mentoring relationships for transition-age youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities?
All data were examined over the course of the peer mentoring relationship, as research indicates relationship duration impacts connection development (Deutsch & Spencer, 2009; Rhodes, Schwartz, Willis, & Wu, 2014) and connection development likely affects the occurrence of self-disclosure (Reis & Shaver, 1988).
This study used a retrospective, observational design to examine self-disclosure. All procedures underwent ethical review and approval from an institutional review board.
Context for Studying Self-Disclosure in Peer Mentoring
Project TEAM is a 12-week multicomponent problem-solving intervention for transition-age youth with disabilities (Kramer, 2015; Kramer et al., 2013; Kramer et al., 2014). Across 16 group sessions, mentees learn to use a “Game Plan,” which uses a goal-plan-do-check approach, to resolve physical and social environmental barriers to participate in an individualized, community-based activity goal (Levin & Kramer, 2015). Project TEAM also includes a phone-based peer mentoring component. As an instrumental mentoring relationship (Karcher, Kuperminc, Portwood, Sipe, & Taylor, 2006), the purpose of the peer mentoring calls is to provide youth with the opportunity to practice the Game Plan and apply the Game Plan to additional activities in their everyday lives. Young adults with IDD (ages 18 to 36) are employed as peer mentors. Peer mentors receive a 2-hour training on the role of a peer mentor and the purpose of the peer mentoring phone calls. Matches of mentors and mentees are based on a shared interest between the mentor and mentee or mentor expertise related to the mentee's goal; mutual availability for weekly calls is also considered. The frequency of contact includes eight mentoring phone calls (calls 1–4 weekly, calls 5–8 biweekly), one to two face-to-face contacts (dependent upon the peer mentor's availability to attend the first and last intervention session), and attending one session in the community to support the mentee's goal.
The structure of peer mentoring phone calls is consistent across each call. Each call is divided into seven mentoring objectives: introduction, an opportunity to learn more about each other, discussion of progress toward the mentee's goal, review of the content of the week's module, practice of the steps of the Game Plan, a reminder to complete the week's practice activity, and an opportunity to ask questions. Each call focuses on a theme such as favorite restaurants, outdoor activities, and travel. Calls become progressively longer; each week, as the mentee learns a new step of the Game Plan (goal, plan, do, check), the mentor and mentee practice more steps of the Game Plan by applying it to activities of interest based on the call theme.
In order to facilitate the success of the peer mentoring relationship, two supports are provided for the peer mentor. First, mentors use a script to achieve each of the seven objectives. The script provides questions and responses that can be used verbatim by the mentor as well as additional suggestions if the mentor needs to provide the mentee with further assistance. To facilitate conversation, scripts include open-ended questions and peer mentors are able to individualize parts of the script. For example, when identifying a practice goal, the script includes a response of “That's a great goal! Can you tell me more about it?” Scripts use symbols, images, and colors to help peer mentors distinguish sections of the script and follow each objective. Second, a peer mentor supporter is available to assist peer mentors. These supporters are available before, during, and after each call to assist the mentor by reviewing the call objectives, providing examples, offering alternative explanations, and helping the mentor identify an optimal response to the mentee's questions or disclosures. Peer mentor supporters avoid direct interaction with mentees. The intensity of the use of supports is determined by the mentor's needs and preferences.
Nine dyads (Table 1) were purposefully selected to include relationships that varied in perceived quality and strength of connection (strong, moderate, weak). Relationship quality and strength of connection was determined based on reflections of the peer mentor and peer mentor supporter at the conclusion of the relationship and perceptions of the principal investigator (second author). We chose not to use mentees' perceptions to categorize and identify relationship quality; previous research suggests mentored individuals report positive aspects of relationships with little variability among mentoring dyads (Rhodes, Reddy, Roffman, & Grossman, 2005; Rhodes et al., 2014).
Three dyads were selected for each degree of connection (Table 2). Relationships with weak connections were characterized by a peer mentor's self-reported feelings of frustration throughout the peer mentoring process, a peer mentor supporter's identification of frustration throughout the peer mentoring process by both the mentee and the peer mentor, and/or dyads in which the mentee ended calls without completing all of the objectives (i.e., hung up, asked to stop the call). Moderate connections were characterized by a peer mentor's self-reported feelings of an “ok” relationship, and peer mentor supporter's assessment that the mentor and/or the mentee were engaged but with occasional frustration or engaged but did not consistently demonstrate enthusiasm for the relationship. Strong connections were characterized by a peer mentor's self-reported feelings of excitement about the experience of mentoring a mentee, and a peer mentor supporter's assessment that both the mentor and mentee appeared engaged and enthusiastic consistently throughout the peer mentoring process.
Sixty-four calls were analyzed for this study. Missing calls (total of eight) were due to mentee absences for scheduled calls. Dyads included six from New England (NE; two for each degree of connection) and three dyads from the Midwest (one for each degree of connection). More dyads were selected in NE as more study participants were enrolled in NE and more peer mentors were hired in NE. Dyads selected represented two of two cohorts in the Midwest and two of five in NE. In the NE location, four young adults with a variety of developmental disabilities participated as peer mentors and all peer mentors attended the first and/or last group session. In the Midwest location, one individual with a developmental disability served as mentor for all mentees and attended every group session as a co-leader. Selected mentors varied in their level of experience. Peer mentors had zero to six previous mentoring relationships for each dyad included in this study (Table 1).
A coding scheme was developed to analyze audio recordings of the peer mentoring phone calls. The theoretical model of the role of the self-disclosure process guided the development and structure of the coding scheme (Table 3). In addition, a mentoring relationship quality questionnaire (Rhodes et al., 2005) informed the development of codes for distinct types of mentor “relational” responses. This questionnaire includes items that assess a mentor's use of advice and empathy to measure relationship quality from the mentee's perspective. Because of the believed importance of connection in mentoring relationship quality, advice and empathy were included in the coding scheme as possible indicators of degree of connection.
Three graduate students served as coders, with two coders independently rating the audio recordings of each call. All calls were coded by the first author, who was not involved in the implementation of Project TEAM. The remaining two coders were graduate students who had previously implemented the Project TEAM intervention; one coder assisted at group sessions, and a second coder was a peer mentor supporter for one of the dyads investigated. After independently rating each call, the coders met to compare codes and reach consensus. Consensus for rating discrepancies was achieved by identifying discrepancies in coding files, jointly listening to specific objectives of the phone calls in which the discrepancy occurred, and discussing features of the data that best matched each code definition. Specific coding decisions were documented and referred to throughout the coding process to promote consistency in coding. The principal investigator (second author) served as an additional coder to resolve discrepancies as needed.
For all research questions, frequencies and/or percentages for codes were calculated for each call for each peer mentoring dyad. These frequencies and percentages of self-disclosure, content of self-disclosure, mentor response, and type of response were examined across the eight calls for patterns (increasing/decreasing trends, etc.) to determine if the peer mentoring relationship changed over time. Missed calls were excluded from the final number during data analysis. However, calls where the mentee ended the call prematurely by hanging up were considered a missed opportunity for disclosure and included in data analysis.
1. What do transition-age youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities self-disclose in structured peer mentoring relationships?
To address this question, each section of the peer mentor call was conceptualized as a separate opportunity to self-disclose. Due to the structure of the calls, the total opportunities to self-disclose varied by call; calls occurring later in the intervention had more opportunities (more steps of the Game Plan were completed with each call). Thus, we report percentages of opportunities to self-disclose for each dyad to enable a comparison of self-disclosure patterns across calls and across dyads. Frequencies of codes were calculated and transformed into percentages by dividing the frequency of the code by the number of opportunities for the code to occur. There were a total of 81 opportunities for the mentee to disclose across the eight calls, with individual calls providing seven to 14 opportunities to disclose.
2. How do peer mentors with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities respond to self-disclosure?
Rate of mentor response to self-disclosure and response type were analyzed using percentages. Coding of mentor response was dependent on the occurrence of self-disclosure by the mentee and, thus, opportunities to respond were defined as the frequency of mentee self-disclosure. Percentages were used to account for variability in the number of opportunities to respond across dyads. These percentages were calculated by dividing the frequency of each code by the frequency of mentee self-disclosure.
3. How are patterns in self-disclosure and response related to perceived degree of connection in peer mentoring relationships for transition-age youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities?
This question was examined by first grouping dyads by perceived degree of connection (strong, moderate, weak). Mean percentages were calculated within each group. Means were then compared across groupings across calls.
Across the nine dyads, call attendance ranged from 75 to 100%, with all mentees attending at least six of the eight calls. Call attendance rates were similar across relationships: strong (92%), moderate (88%), and weak connections (88%). Because there was a wide range in frequencies by individual dyads, frequency ranges are presented for individual dyads in Table 4.
What Do Transition-Age Youth With Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities Self-Disclose in Structured Peer Mentoring Relationships?
Self-disclosure by the mentee occurred 14% to 79% (M = 59%) of opportunities, with the majority of self-disclosures including a fact (84%; Table 4). Across the eight calls for all dyads, frequency of overall mentee self-disclosure showed a slight decrease across the first four calls (59 to 46%), stable across calls five to seven (54%), and an increase in call eight, which had the highest rate of overall self-disclosure (70%). When examining specific content of disclosure, disclosure of facts across the eight calls for all dyads was variable, with no clear trend (61 to 85%). Self-disclosure of all emotions showed an increasing trend from call two (29%) to call six (62%). Mentee self-disclosure of positive emotions was variable with no clear trend (52 to 100%), and self-disclosure of negative emotions showed an increasing trend from call two (17%) to call six (61%).
How Do Peer Mentors With Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities Respond to Self-Disclosure?
Peer mentors responded to self-disclosure in 94 to 100% of opportunities (Table 4). Mentor responses included a conversational response 92% of the time and/or a relational response 78% of the time (responses could contain both types of responses). The frequency of mentor conversational responses was variable, with no clear trend and a range of 78 to 93% across the eight calls for all dyads. The frequency of mentor relational responses for all dyads showed a decreasing trend across the first four calls (87 to 66%), was consistently high in calls five through seven (87 to 89%), and sharply declined in call eight (52%). The most common type of mentor relational response was a question, and the least common was advice (Table 4). Two notable trends in relational response types were the decreasing trend of empathy from call two to call six and the increasing trend of advice from call five to call eight (Figure 2). There were no clear trends over time in the frequency of questions or self-disclosure by the peer mentor. The majority of conversational and relational responses originated from the peer mentoring script; peer mentors responded using the peer mentoring script or the script in combination with his or her own additions 89% of the time.
How Are Patterns in Self-Disclosure and Response Related to Perceived Degree of Connection in Peer Mentoring Relationships for Transition-Age Youth With Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities?
Comparison across the three degrees of connection (strong, moderate, weak) showed overall self-disclosure by the mentee occurred in a similar frequency in relationships categorized as strong (63%) and moderate (64%). However, the frequency of overall self-disclosure was less in relationships with weak connections (50%). The content of the disclosure appeared to have some differences between the three degrees of connection (Figure 3); mentees disclosed more than one fact related to Project TEAM in a single opportunity most frequently in relationships with strong connections (62%) and least frequently in relationships with weak connections (46%). When unrelated facts were disclosed, mentees shared more than one fact at similar frequencies in relationships with strong (87%) and moderate (88%) connections.
Self-disclosure of emotions occurred most frequently in relationships with strong connections (38%), followed by similar frequencies for relationships with connections perceived as moderate (30%) and weak (31%). The types of emotions disclosed were similar for strong and weak connections, with the majority (73% and 75%, respectively) being positive emotions. Conversely, mentees in relationships with moderate connections disclosed negative emotions (69%) much more frequently than positive emotions (30%). Related to this finding is the consistently high frequency of negative emotions disclosed in relationships with moderate connections from call two (50%) to call six (68%) compared to the increasing trend seen for all dyads from call two (17%) to call six (61%). Consistent with trends in overall self-disclosure of emotions, mentees in relationships with strong connections more frequently disclosed more than one emotion in a single opportunity (17%) when compared to moderate and weak connections (10%).
Peer mentors responded to self-disclosure at equivalent frequencies across relationships with strong (99%), moderate (98%), and weak connections (97%). The type of response varied slightly across connections of varying degrees of connection. Frequencies of conversational responses suggest these types of responses may occur slightly more frequently in relationships with stronger connections (strong: 95%, moderate: 93%, weak: 89%). Relational responses were used slightly more frequently in relationships with connections categorized as moderate (80%) as compared to strong (78%) and weak (76%) connections. The specific type of relational response varied across strong, moderate, and weak connections, with mentors in relationships with strong connections providing advice and their own self-disclosure at higher frequencies than in relationships with moderate and weak connections (Figure 3). However, empathy was highest in relationships with moderate connections. The peer mentors responded to disclosure with a question at similar frequencies across degrees of connection (strong: 92%, moderate: 91%, weak: 89%).
Application of Theoretical Model
Finally, the theoretical model was used to interpret the data and understand the impact of its proposed mechanisms. The model demonstrates the importance of examining the mentee's self-disclosure paired with the peer mentor's response, as in these individual exchanges that may have implications for the development of a connection. Two examples, one from a relationship with a strong connection and one from a relationship with a weak connection, are presented to illustrate the variability found within mentee self-disclosure and mentor response and the potential link to degree of connection and mentoring relationship quality.
The first example is from a relationship with a connection categorized as strong (Dyad 5). The mentee disclosed a related fact as her practice goal to use during the call and positive emotions when talking about wanting to be part of drama club at school: “I would love to be back stage and do the makeup and interview the people.” The peer mentor then responded with a relational response including advice by saying “That would be good for you because you're a talkative person. It would be awesome.” This relational response conveyed recognition of the mentee's disclosure and potentially validated the mentee's personal strengths.
A second example is from a relationship with a connection categorized as weak (Dyad 7). When talking about the call theme of going to a restaurant and favorite foods, the mentee shared: “kid's meal, I go with my mom.” The peer mentor then responded with a conversational response by saying “ok,” which conveyed recognition of self-disclosure. However, without additions such as follow-up questions about the kid's meal or the mentor disclosing who she goes out to eat with, this response likely conveyed limited interest in what the mentee disclosed.
These two examples differ in both the content of disclosure and the type of response used by the peer mentor. When applied to the theoretical model, these differences may have had implications for the mentee's interpretation of the response and the impact of this exchange on the development of a connection, the quality of the mentoring relationship, and the likelihood the mentee would disclose again.
The findings of this study demonstrate that transition-age youth with IDD can develop interpersonal connections and engage in structured peer mentoring relationships, such as those in Project TEAM. In addition, the findings illustrate how the self-disclosure process can be used to examine the development of connection in peer mentoring relationships. Understanding the mechanisms involved in connection development may have implications for promoting stronger connections, higher-quality mentoring relationships, and potential positive outcomes. Across research questions, findings point to the importance of the quantity of mentee self-disclosure, the content of self-disclosure, the timing of evaluative disclosure, and the type of peer mentor response for connection development.
Quantity of self-disclosure appears to be an indicator of connection. Mentees in relationships with strong connections disclosed the highest quantity of information, including both descriptive (facts) and evaluative (emotions) information, and mentees in relationships with weak connections disclosed the lowest quantity. Differences in quantity reflect the mechanisms of relationship development discussed by Reis and Shaver (1988) in that greater disclosure leads to greater relationship development. Trends in quantity over time for all dyads also demonstrate connection and relationship development. Because the peer mentoring script provides an increasing number of opportunities to disclose across calls, consistency in the frequency of disclosure indicates mentees disclosed during these additional opportunities and, thus, disclosed increasing quantities of information. Further, dyads with the strongest connections had slightly higher attendance rates, suggesting a reciprocal relationship between the number of opportunities to disclose and connection development. These findings suggest that strong interpersonal connections in peer mentoring relationships can be facilitated by frequently providing mentees opportunities to disclose across the relationship.
Differences in the content of self-disclosure appeared to have implications for connection development across dyads. The data indicate balance in descriptive self-disclosure related to Project TEAM and self-disclosure about other aspects of the mentees' lives impacts connection development. In relationships with strong connections, there were high quantities of disclosures both related and unrelated to Project TEAM. However, in relationships with moderate or weak connections, there were greater quantities of related or unrelated disclosures, respectively. This suggests peer mentoring relationships that are incorporated into larger interventions or curriculums, such as Project TEAM, should seek to achieve a balance between discussing intervention content and discussing other topics in order to best support connection development.
Self-disclosure containing evaluative information also appears important for connection development. Relationships with strong connections had the highest quantity of evaluative self-disclosures. This finding is consistent with the literature as evaluative disclosures are considered more intimate than descriptive disclosures and, therefore, promote greater relationship development (Laurenceau et al., 1998). The small quantity of evaluative self-disclosures compared to the quantity of descriptive self-disclosures is also consistent with the literature; these disclosures are considered more intimate and are less likely to occur until some degree of connection has been developed (Laurenceau et al., 1998). The quantity of evaluative self-disclosures for all dyads demonstrated an increasing trend across all calls. This finding provides support for the reciprocal nature of the self-disclosure process, as evaluative self-disclosure likely supports connection development and leads to greater disclosure of more intimate, evaluative information over time.
In addition to quantity, timing of evaluative self-disclosure may have implications for connection development. Disclosure of positive emotions appeared to be more important earlier in the relationship, although disclosure of negative emotions was more important later in the relationship. The increasing trend in the disclosure of negative emotions over time for all dyads is consistent with the literature and suggestive of connection development, as negative emotions are perceived to be more appropriate for close relationships (Howell & Conway, 1990). Yet, differences across degree of connection suggests mentees in relationships with moderate connections may have disclosed negative emotions prematurely before a connection could develop, thus negatively impacting further connection development.
The type of peer mentor response also appears to influence connection development. All peer mentors frequently used questions to elicit further self-disclosure. Mentors in relationships with strong connections most frequently included advice and their own self-disclosure in responses, which provides support for advice as a driver of relationship quality and its inclusion in mentoring relationship quality assessments (Rhodes et al., 2005). Further, the higher frequency of both advice and the peer mentor's own self-disclosure in relationships with strong connections is consistent with the broader relationship development literature, as these responses likely reciprocated the intimacy of the mentee's disclosure, promoting connection development (Ensher et al., 2001; Reis & Shaver, 1988). Decreasing use of empathy by peer mentors over time suggests that mentors may have initially used this type of response to build connection with mentees, but, over time, found other ways to support the mentee. The increasing use of advice in later calls suggests peer mentors may have recognized the relationships would be ending soon and offered suggestions that could continue to benefit the mentee.
Characteristics of the peer mentor and mentee should be considered when interpreting the findings. Relationships with connections categorized as strong included dyads with mentees and peer mentors of the same gender (Table 1). This may have positively contributed to the degree of connection developed, as mentees may have been more willing to self-disclose to a peer mentor of the same gender. In addition, female mentees were more frequently in relationships with stronger connections. The literature related to the role of gender in mentoring relationships is somewhat inconclusive (Darling, Bogat, Cavell, Murphy, & Sanchez, 2006; Keating, Tomishima, Foster, & Alessandri, 2002), however, the findings of this study suggest gender may be related to the frequency of self-disclosure and, subsequently, the degree of connection. Further research on the role of self-disclosure could enhance understanding of differences in mentoring across genders (Darling et al., 2006). Another influence on self-disclosure may be age. Mentees in relationships with weak connections were slightly younger than mentees in relationships with stronger connections (Table 2). Younger mentees may have had fewer experiences to share during mentoring calls or had more difficulty connecting with older peer mentors, possibly influencing self-disclosure.
The findings of this study have implications for peer mentoring quality for transition-age youth with IDD, such as the peer mentoring component of Project TEAM. Our findings suggest mentoring programs should provide ample opportunities for mentees to self-disclose throughout the mentoring relationship. Instrumental and structured peer mentoring relationships can “build in” increased opportunities for self-disclosure, specifically self-disclosure unrelated to the main focus or purpose of the mentoring relationship. In mentoring programs such as Project TEAM, the script is a support tool that could be easily modified to provide such opportunities.
Higher-quality mentoring relationships can also be supported by teaching mentors to respond to mentee self-disclosure using approaches that our data suggest may be associated with stronger connections. This could include giving advice or reciprocating the mentee's self-disclosure with mentor self-disclosure. For example, the Project TEAM peer mentoring script can provide more examples of these types of responses to support peer mentors to respond to disclosure in ways that may support connection development. Overall, our findings suggest the self-disclosure process can be used to guide mentoring intervention development to promote higher-quality relationships and more positive outcomes for transition-age youth with IDD.
This study had several limitations. Coding of audio recordings did not account for nonverbal communication such as laughter or tone of voice, which may have been part of the self-disclosure process. This study purposely chose to explore the occurrence of self-disclosure, which was broadly defined. However, each self-disclosure likely differed in personal meaning for the mentees; future studies could explore the impact of intimate self-disclosure, from the mentee's perspective, on relationship quality. Similarly, we did not directly examine the mentee's interpretation of the peer mentor's response. Research aimed at understanding this interpretation is needed to further validate the theoretical model. In addition, the design of the larger study meant we were unable to analyze self-disclosure between dyads during the two to three face-to-face meetings; including these in-person interactions in our analysis may provide additional insights regarding the self-disclosure process and the development of connection. Although peer mentor supporters were instructed to avoid direct interaction with the mentee, the presence of the supporter may have influenced the mentee's willingness to disclose and the mentoring relationship development. Exploration of the use of the peer mentor supporter and the impact of this support on the mentoring relationship is needed. Finally, the coders were educated with the philosophy that all individuals can be successful in any type of task when given appropriate support, thus the raters' perceptions of the youths' success in participating in the peer mentoring relationship may have been impacted by this philosophy. In addition, inter-reliability was not calculated prior to consensus meetings.
As with any relationship, peer mentoring relationships are complex, dynamic, and impacted by numerous factors. The self-disclosure process may be used to understand development of connection in mentoring relationships, the influence of connection on overall relationship quality, and the impact of quality on positive outcomes for mentees. Most importantly, the results of this study indicate that, with structure, transition-age youth with IDD can successfully initiate and respond to self-disclosure as a means of developing positive peer mentoring relationships.