It’s going to help me in life”: Forms, sources, and functions of social support for youth in natural mentoring relationships

Varga, S. M., Yu, M. V. B., Johnson, H. E., & Deutsch, N. L. (2023). “It’s going to help me in life”:  Forms, sources, and functions of social support for youth in natural mentoring relationships. Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Research shows that social support is linked to psychological and physical health outcomes for adolescents.
  • It is unclear how non-parental, adult-youth relationships affect adolescent social support.
  • Although evidence indicates that social support comes in many forms and from many sources, scholars’ understanding of social support’s specific roles and forms is limited.
  • This study evaluates youths’ relationships with various “very important persons” (VIPs) and what types of social support their VIPs provide.
  • Findings indicate that all types of VIPS (e.g., neighbors and teachers) offer different types of social support* and that youths can pinpoint the benefits of various social support types.
    • These findings imply that a) the same support type can operate differently depending on the VIP offering it and b) that youths are actively contributing to their development.
  • Instrumental, informational, and emotional support varied based on the adult offering it (e.g., teachers). However, validation and companionship were consistent across adults.
  • The prevalence of emotional support was beneficial and consistent across adolescents.
  • Youths were more likely to pursue informational and instrumental support.
  • It is essential to get a comprehensive understanding of how the strategies of various sources differ in their delivery of social support. Doing so will help people better understand how to provide more effective social support for youths who need it.
  • Future studies need to assess for any differences for youths from underrepresented backgrounds.

* = Types of Social Support

Instrumental Support (Providing practical and concrete assistance, such as offering transportation)

Emotional Support (Providing a safe space for youths to voice their problems and needs)

Informational Support (Providing guidance, advice, or knowledge)

Validation (Making positive affirmations about the appropriateness of a youth’s behavior)

Companionship (Being available to engage in leisure and social activities)


Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Social Support is associated with positive physical and psychological health outcomes for youth. We took a qualitative approach to examine the sources, forms, and functions of social support youth receive from natural mentoring relationships in their lives. Data for this study comes from interviews of 40 youth participating in a study of youth-adult relationships and natural mentoring processes. Analyses revealed 1) different types of adults had the capacity to provide different types of support, and were likely to provide overlapping supports. 2) Emotional, informational, and instrumental support qualitatively differed depending on the adult’s role (e.g., teacher), while companionship and validation was consistent across adults. 3) Youth were able to identify benefits attached to the social support received from important adults. Our findings contribute to a more nuanced understanding of aspects and characteristics of effective youth-adult mentoring processes and call for fuller assessments of social support in youths’ lives so we may better meet their developmental needs.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Previous research has highlighted the important role that social support can play in the lives of youth as a beneficial mechanism for positive youth development. However, prior research has yet to clearly delineate how different types of social support operate Accepted Article within natural mentoring relationships and the important functions they play in youth’s lives. To this end, we found that all types of VIPs in our study were providing multiple types of support, that certain supports differed depending on the adult providing the support, and that youth were able to identify perceived benefits of social support. Our first finding suggests that previous studies are likely uncovering separate pieces of the larger picture of how specific types of social support function in natural mentoring relationships. Like previous studies, we found that teachers offer validation (Richman, Rosenfield, and Bowen, 1998) and informational support (Malecki & Demaray, 2003). However, counter to Bokhorst and colleagues (2010) finding that perceptions of teacher social support declines as students’ age, we found the salience of emotional supports for middle and high school students were consistent. This is important given the social benefits of emotional support (e.g., being more receptive to other types supports) we identified in this study as well as other research indicating that teacher emotional support is strongly associated with students’ social skills and academic competence (Malecki & Demarary, 2003). Our findings suggest that the salience of emotional support across adolescence is consistent and remains beneficial for youth as they age.

When looking within types of social support offered by different types of adults, we found that emotional, informational, and instrumental support might look different depending on the type of adult providing it. This has implications for examining and understanding social support. If the same type of social support can function differently depending on the VIP providing it, more work needs to be conducted on singular types of support from various types of VIPs, first for replication but second for points of intervention in youth’s lives. For emotional support, youth’s descriptions suggest that Accepted Article teachers need only offer a nonjudgmental space for youth to share their problems whereas they receive problem solving advice from family friends, family, and advisors. Given that emotional support from different sources is linked to different outcomes for youth, such as psychosocial competence from family (Smetana, Campione-Barr, & Metzger, 2006) and academic competence from teachers (Malecki & Demaray, 2003), it is then understandable that those adults differ in their approach to emotional support. Though, to our knowledge, no previous study has reported this. Moreover, it is important to understand how different sources vary in their approach to offering certain types of social support so that we can better understand how to better provide social support to youth who are lacking it. For example, given that instrumental and informational support from teachers and coaches was usually domain specific related to their roles, interventions may need to look beyond those traditional roles for more generalized informational and instrumental support for youth. This may be particularly important for minoritized youth who may have less and differential access to specific non-kin VIPs (e.g., teachers, coaches) based on social position factors such race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status (Sanchez, Colon, Feuer, Roundfield, & Berardi, 2013; Raposa et al., 2019).

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