New study explores how supportive non-parental adult figures impact adolescents

Mirković, B., Brady, B., & Silke, C. (2021). Associations Between non-parental Adult Support and Youths’ Individual and Contextual Characteristics. Child Care in Practice.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin 

Notes of Interest: 

  • As youths get older, their networks grow to encompass people outside of their families. 
  • There is a need to better understand how the presence (or the absence) of caring non-parental adult figures impact adolescents. 
  • This paper examines the differences between youths who receive support from only their parents and youths who receive support from their parents in addition to non-parental figures.
    • It also explores the differences in identity, parental relationships, socioeconomic traits, socio-emotional behaviors, self-esteem, and coping strategies between caring non-parental adult figures and youths. 
  • Youths who sought support from a parent and a non-parental figure tend to have better outcomes than youths who only sought support from a parent.
    • Experience more difficulties 
    • Have higher rates of disclosure with their parents
    • Implemented active coping methods
    • Had better self-esteem and sense of identity
  •  Future research on this subject matter needs to account for the quality of support youths are receiving from non-parental adults. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

While the role parents play in supporting young people is well established, support from other caring adults also becomes important during adolescence, particularly when young people are facing problems in their lives. The goal of this paper is to reflect on youth support seeking when facing problems, exploring differences between youth who seek support from parents only and those who seek support from parents and other non-parental adults. This paper outlines the findings of a secondary analysis of data from the third wave of the Growing up in Ireland child cohort at 17/18 years, collected from primary caregivers and youth. From 6126 young people in the national sample, 91.3% answered the selective question about the type of adult support they seek. Of this cohort, 36% of young people seek support from a parent and 48% go to a parent and another adult. Comparing these groups, there are significant differences found in both their individual and contextual characteristics, with better outcomes for youth with additional non-parental adult support, including using active coping strategies, better self-esteem, and identity resolution. While the findings indicate that non-parental adults have a positive influence in different areas of youth well-being, further research is required to better understand the ways in which support from non-parental adults helps young people in their transition to adulthood.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Support from caring and trusted non-parental adults has been highlighted as an important resource to young people, especially those facing adversities (Brady et al., 2020; Cotterell, 2007; Zimmerman et al., 2005). The Growing Up in Ireland dataset has provided the opportunity to gain an Irish perspective on the importance of these relationships for young people among a broad national sample. This research makes an important contribution to the literature by exploring the role of other adults for young people among a normative sample. It is also unique in differentiating parental from non-parental support and exploring the added value other adults can bring to youths’ well-being.

In the current study, 85% of the young people reported they would go to their parent for support when they were facing difficulties. Most of them would talk to their mothers, then their father, but a lot of young people would also use the support of a non-parental adult. The results of Irish national study “My world survey 2” (Dooley, O’Connor, Fitzgerald, & O’Reilly, 2019) found that out of the 76% of young people that have an adult present when in need, 30% say that adult is their mother, only 4% father and 49% other adults (35% being their relative, 8% someone else, 6% reported multiple sources). The remaining 17% didn’t report who their special adult is. The differences in percentages might occur because of the construction of the questions or the different age range included in the research. Another reason is that a young person who has the skills or opportunities to form relationships with non-parental adults might have more than one caring adult they would go to for help (Meltzer, Muir, & Craig, 2018), which is somewhat reported in the My world survey 2 (Dooley et al., 2019) but could give different responses if asked more specifically. As both groups in our analysis have parent support, the results are looked at through the lens of the added value of non-parental adult in their lives, acknowledging that other factors could also interfere with these results.

Relating to the gender of the young people, relationships with non-parental adults are present in both young men and women’s lives. Whether they seek help for the same type of difficulties is still unknown and further exploration of gender differences in youths’ relationships with non-parental adults is needed. Regarding the type of household, we see differences between young people from single-parent and two parent households. As young people from single-parents households could be more inclined to search for a “second attachment figure” they could have more reason to go to non-parental adults (Zimmerman et al., 2005), as shown in the findings.

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