Bonding with a coach, mentor or other trusted adult can make a crucial difference in the way young people thrive in school and life, but a new study from the Minneapolis-based Search Institute found that most Twin Cities teenagers lack such relationships.

Four of five teens surveyed had no meaningful relationships with adults beyond their immediate family, the institute reported Thursday in its second annual "Teen Voice" report. The analysis suggests that while many teens are busy with school, sports, work or family, they lack the broader social support that can give them confidence and help them succeed.

"Caring adults, beyond the immediate family, really do matter for a lot of the outcomes that Americans care about, including school success," said Peter Benson, president and chief executive officer of the Search Institute, a policy center for child and family development.

The survey of 1,860 15-year-olds found that the teens showed more academic achievement and hope for the future if they had positive adult role models in their lives.

Almost half the teens identified one or more adults as a mentor or someone who "really gets" them. Specifically, 27 percent mentioned teachers, 11 percent coaches and 8 percent neighbors.

But through further questioning, the researchers found that many of these relationships lacked the necessary depth to offer much support.

"It's one thing to be friendly as an adult," Benson said. "It's another to give kids the signal, in however you engage with them, that I know you, I see you, I value you."

Few chances to connect

While some teens may be "overscheduled," many have no activities outside school and few chances to connect with adults, said Angela Jerabek, the ninth-grade coordinator for the St. Louis Park schools. Jerabek was consulted in the design of the survey and has a 15-year-old daughter herself.

Finding mentors for this age group can be crucial, she said, especially for teens entering the freshman year, which can "make or break" their progress in high school.

Teens at that age start to tune out parents, Jerabek said. But they still need adults to guide them and serve as examples as they deal with turbulent issues such as sex, friendship, self-identity and their hopes in life.

"If it's a neighbor or a coach saying the exact same thing that I'm saying, I'm thrilled that they are [viewed as] clever and I am not," she said.

The survey is the second of its kind by the Search Institute and Best Buy, the electronics retailer, which has taken a specific interest in the young teens who will be future shoppers and workers.

St. Louis Park has been something of a laboratory for outreach to this age group through an initiative called Children First. Coordinator Karen Atkinson said the program has encouraged organizations over the past decade to come up with ways to connect with young teens. The parks department, for example, is promoting a junior leadership program for early teens to mentor younger children and to manage summer playground and park activities.

Long-established formal mentoring programs are also changing their approaches to encourage stronger relationships. The White Bear Lake Rotary Club is tinkering with its Strive program, which provides mentors and scholarships to high schoolers whose grades need a boost.

Last year, the club tried a "speed-dating" event in which students rotated among business leaders to make multiple connections. This year it plans to link students with mentors who work in the industries that excite them, said Janet Newberg of the White Bear Lake chapter.

When 'it's clicking'

While Rotary focuses on students near graduation, others are concentrating on the younger teens identified in the survey.

Minneapolis-based Bolder Options links mentors such as Glen Desouza, an IT consultant, with at-risk, urban youth in the 10-to-14 age range. Desouza is mentoring his third teen and getting to know when relationships reach meaningful stages. Usually, he said, it's when teens start calling to schedule activities, instead of the other way around.

"When they start saying: 'Let's go for a run' or 'Are you coming to my baseball game?'" he said, "that's when you know that it's clicking."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744