How you should support a mentee might depend on their age

Yu, M. V. B., & Deutsch, N. L. (2019). Aligning social support to youth’s developmental needs: The role of nonparental youth–adult relationships in early and late adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 1–17.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although research indicates that important relationships between youth and non-parental adult figures are effective for positive development, not much research accounts for how the relational process can differ depending on the stage of adolescence. 
  • This study compares five forms of social support processes through qualitative methods to examine this subject. 
  • The researchers discovered disparities that came up in the quality of the relationships between the early and late adolescent groups, general characteristics of the relationships, and other differences in the social support types. 
  • The authors ultimately find that the fit of a non-parental adult relationship with a youth is highly important, and what this adult does for a child may vary based on their developmental stage.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Through the provision of different types of social support, significant nonparental youth–adult relationships can facilitate youth’s positive development across adolescence. However, despite the potential benefits of these relationships, there has been little consideration of how the relational process may vary across different adolescent stages. Utilizing qualitative methods, this study compared five types of social support processes (emotional, instrumental, companionship, validation, and informational) as reported by youth during early (n = 23) and late adolescence (n = 14). Differences emerged with regard to the general characteristics and nature of relationships between the early and late adolescent groups and additional differences emerged across the five types of social support. This study demonstrates how a developmental perspective may elucidate the processes that characterize and underlie youth’s relationships with supportive nonparental adults. Findings provide implications to understand, promote and sustain these important relationships in the lives of youth.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Previous research has documented the importance of supportive nonparental youth–adult relationships during adolescence. However, previous work has left open the question of whether the developmental characteristics and nature of these relationships vary across adolescence. As one-way to fill this gap in the literature, this study compared five types of social support processes as reported by youth during two distinct developmental periods in adolescence.

Adolescence is marked by changes that exist across various contexts. These changes are often accompanied by shifts in adolescents’ trajectories (Gutman & Eccles, 2007). For some youth, changes during adolescence may facilitate positive growth and adjustment. For other youth, however, these changes can negatively affect wellbeing (e.g., self-esteem), as well as increase problem behaviors (e.g., disengagement in schools; Symond & Hargreaves, 2016). According to stage–environment fit theory (Eccles & Midgley, 1989), some of these negative changes may result from a mismatch between the needs of developing adolescents and the opportunities afforded to them in their social contexts. Adolescents whose contexts change in developmentally regressive ways or provide “bad fit” for meeting youth’s changing needs may lead to difficulties and less than optimal development. In contrast, adolescents whose social environments respond to their changing needs are more likely to experience positive outcomes. In line with this theoretical perspective, this study shows that social support from VIPs may help youth navigate developmental changes and contexts associated with two distinct stages in adolescence. For example, our findings link to previous research suggesting younger youth tend to have vertical (e.g., adult to youth) interactions with adults as compared to older youth who tend to emphasize mutuality in relationships (Chu et al., 2010; Hartup, 1989). According to Chu et al. (2010), vertical and horizontal relationships can have different impacts on youth and thus the social support they receive and perceive, and its effects, may be different as well.

Overall, results suggest the importance of considering the quality of “fit” between the supports that VIPs provide youth that align with their changing developmental needs. Specifically, knowing that VIPs “do” different things for youth makes it possible to think about aligning what youth most need with adults who are best able to perform those functions (Hamilton et al., 2016). Indeed, this study shows that VIPs may serve multiple functions in youth’s lives, as sources of companionship; as means to gain information, master skills and explore opportunities; and to address personal development, social competence and character development to name a few. To further elucidate these processes, this study identified key developmental differences in the characteristics and nature of social support as described by younger and older adolescents. The developmental implications of these differences are discussed further in the following sections.

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