Understanding youth’s systems of support: Role of peers and adults

Melton, T. N., Brehm, M. V., & Deutsch, N. L. (2021). Broadening the perspective on youth’s systems of support: An ecological examination of supportive peer and adult relationships during adolescence. Journal of Community Psychology, n/a(n/a).


Summarized by Ariel Ervin 

Notes of Interest: 

  • Past research has shown the important role supportive relationships have on youth development. 
  • This study explores supportive relationships between peers, parents, and non-parental adult figures within various contexts (i.e. family, school, after-school, neighborhood, and community) from an ecological perspective.
    • It also examines how various sources of support affect positive youth development (PYD) outcomes. 
  • Findings indicate that…
    • High school-aged youth nominated significantly more adults than middle school-aged youth.
    • Although adults and peers provide different kinds of support, they’re both important figures for youth to have.  
    • The breadth of a mentee’s youth system (determined by the number of accessible contexts and the youth’s closeness with their mentors) was a notable predictor of having a supportive relationship.
  • While bigger youth systems with a myriad of close peers and grown-ups are essential, the quality of each relationship is just as important. 
  • Adults are encouraged to form relationships with youths who are interested in forming a bond with them.
  • It’s also important for adults to adhere to the 5 C’s of PYD in order to meet all of their youth’s needs and to respect adolescents’ autonomy. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This study applies the theory of positive youth development (Lerner et al., 2010) and the youth systems framework (Varga & Zaff, 2018) to the examination of supportive peer and adult relationships across multiple contexts in which youth develop. Results of egocentric social network analysis indicated that high school‐aged youth nominated significantly more adults than middle school‐aged youth. Peers and adults both acted as important sources of support, although often the types of support they offer differ. Outdegree centrality of peers was a significant predictor of character. The size of a participant’s youth system, measured as the number of contexts accessed, along with average closeness in adult relationships, was a significant predictor of contribution. Thematic analysis of interview data identified four themes, aligned with the five actions of developmental relationships, as contributing factors to youth–adult closeness and youth perceptions of support (Pekel et al., 2018). Implications for youth–adult relationships are discussed.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study explores the ways youth interact with important individuals across their youth system, including both peers and adults. In reviewing participant social network maps, it is evident that youth systems vary; some youth had multiple peers and adults across multiple contexts, while others engaged with only a few individuals across only a few contexts. Although the literature suggests that peers become more important as youth age (Oris et al., 2016), this did not result in more peer nominations by older youth, at least in this sample. The average reported closeness with peers was closely in line with that of the adults. Although it did appear as if high school‐aged youth relied on peers for support more than middle school youth in some areas, the differences were not significant. Additionally, more adults were nominated by high school‐aged participants than those in middle school. This finding supports previous research: adults remain an important source of support through adolescence (Pekel et al., 2018).

Findings from the current study also emphasize that peers and adults are important sources of support. Our findings support previous literature (Olsson et al., 2016) that highlight the fact that adults and peers offer different types of support. What is most striking in our data is that, for most of the types of support, both peers and adults were listed as important sources. Previous research has found that combined support from both parents and peers was associated with well‐being, a relationship that was stronger than any source of support alone (Oris et al., 2016). Findings from the current study emphasize the fact that multiple individuals can offer different types of support (Varga & Zaff, 2018). For example, peers were the primary source of companionship support, while adults remained a consistent source of informational support. This finding suggests that having options of individuals from whom to seek support, including both peers and adults, may be ideal in providing a broad array of support across contexts and situations. These results support Varga and Zaff’s theory that networks of relationships, together, influence youth development. Additionally, these findings support the use of a youth system model, including an ecological examination of relationships, rather than focusing only on dyads.

Including more peer nominations was a significant predictor of character, which is defined as respect for societal and cultural roles and understanding of correct behavior. Character is a central individual characteristic and is thought to be gained by interacting with individuals, especially caring adults (Hamilton et al., 2004). Our findings, however, demonstrate that connections with caring peers may also be important in promoting character development, at least during adolescence. Peers play an important role during youth development, contributing to identity development and helping to teach important social skills (Bowers et al., 2014). In addition, supportive peer relationships have been positively associated with self‐esteem (Colarossi & Eccles, 2003). Therefore, the fact that more peer relationships contribute positively to character development is in line with previous literature, especially considering relationship needs change across time (Hamilton et al., 2004). This finding also challenges the traditional societal narrative that emphasizes the potential for negative peer influence during adolescence and demonstrates the potentially positive role of supportive peer relationships. Total nominations in general, including both peers and adults, was also a significant predictor of character, emphasizing the potential importance of a larger network involving both types of relationships. The different associations found between access to peers and adults and individual attributes (i.e., competence, connection, character) highlight the fact that relationships with peers and adults are both important; relationships with adults and peers are both driving development, but in different, although equally important, areas.

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