What is social support? Why do we need it? How do we provide it?

Research papers on child development and psychology are full of contradictions, shades of grey, and nuances. The complexity of life means that it is difficult to find certainty, distinguish between causal and non-causal factors, or to be confident in knowing what works for young people and what doesn’t.

One thing that social scientists do agree on, however, is that children who have good social support are more resilient to disadvantage than those that do not. They are more likely to overcome adversity and to negotiate transitions through childhood successfully. From the 1980s onwards, a large number of robust studies have shown that the presence of a consistent care-giver or other reliable adult is a key protective factor for young people.1

In addition to demonstrating the importance of good social support, social scientists are also beginning to codify the functions that this support provides and what makes them effective. The authors of a new book, A Guide to Youth Mentoring2, posit that social support can serve four main functions. It can be tangible support, meaning practical things like money or access to opportunities. It can also be emotional, e.g. somebody who can provide a listening and sympathetic ear. Another type of support is advisory, such as helping a young person to understand their career choices. Finally, support can be esteem building, which is helping a child understand their self-worth. The authors suggest that the most effective social support is also durable, has a reasonable level of emotional closeness, has space for positive criticism, and includes some degree of reciprocation.

We know that children with good social support do better in life, but what does this mean for mentoring providers like Friendship Works?

Knowing that good social support makes a big difference means that we can be confident that mentoring will have a significant impact if it meets three conditions: a) it is addressing an identified gap in a young person’s social support network, b) the mentor is able to provide support which plugs this gap, and c) the mentoring relationship has the attributes of positive social support. There are a few things that we have to do to ensure that we meet these conditions.

Firstly, we need to assess the needs of each child referred to the service and establish how they could benefit. Secondly, once we know what shape the gap in their social support network is, we need to find a mentor who is able to plug this gap. We also need to ensure that the mentor understands how they can help, and that they are given adequate supervision and training to meet the need. And finally, we need to build a relationship between the child and their mentor that is durable, close, strong enough to endure positive criticism, and that is mutually beneficial.

All of the children supported by a mentor at Friendship Works have been identified as being able to benefit from additional social support. The need is different for each child. A parent suffering from poor mental health may not be able to provide emotional support; a parent with a physical disability may struggle to provide access to opportunities for their child. Because the need of each child is unique, the additional support that we offer is tailored to fit.

One of the great advantages of a mentoring scheme like Friendship Works’, is that the right mentor can be identified to meet the needs of each child – the right sized plug for the specific gap in each child’s social support network. The quality and durability of the relationship is something that we strongly emphasize by focusing on the relationship that is built over the two year commitment. We believe that a child benefits most from a genuine friendship with their mentor, which can only happen if the relationship is given time to grow and enrich both the child and the mentor.

Setting up effective and good quality mentoring relationships is resource intensive. Casework staff need to properly assess each child and family, screen, train and build good working relationships with volunteers and provide regular and in-depth supervision once a match is underway. Jean Rhodes, one of the leading researchers into mentoring in the US, recently warned against reducing this investment of resources and watering down the quality of assessment and support. There is clear evidence that ‘lighter touch’ approaches to mentoring are, in the long-term, less cost-effective in delivering real change in young people’s lives.

We appreciate these opportunities to reflect on our approach to mentoring. Mentoring has an amazing potential to help young people develop, but, as at Friendship Works, it needs to be delivered to a high quality with the commitment to spend time getting to know each child, family and volunteer and to provide proper training and support once a match has been made.

We’re always looking for ways to serve young people more effectively. If you have any insights about a need that was supported by a mentor in your life, we’d love to hear about your experience.

 

Werner, E.E and Smith, R.S. (1982) Vulnerable but Invincible: A Study of Resilient Children. New York: McGraw-Hill

Dolan, P. And Brady, B. (2012) A Guide to Youth Mentoring: Providing Effective Social Support.  Jessica Kingsley