Ask A Researcher

January 2015

The Importance of Recognizing the Role of Social Support in Human Development Across the Lifespan

Heather Fuller-Iglesias is an Assistant Professor in the department of Human Development and Family Science at NDSU. She received her doctoral degree in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan in 2009. Her research broadly focuses on the influence of social relationships and cultural context on development across the lifespan, including a specific focus on intergenerational and family relationships in late-life. She directs the Linked Lives Research Lab at NDSU.


As a developmental psychologist, I am frequently asked questions about parenting young children such as “How should I handle my daughter’s tantrums?” or “How do I get my son to eat his vegetables?”. While these questions related to raising young children are clearly important (especially for those of us in the trenches with young children!), in recent decades researchers in the field of human development have come to realize that the important questions of human development extend far beyond childhood and into the entire lifespan. In fact, we now highlight the importance of understanding growth and changes in human development starting in the prenatal period and lasting through the process of dying at the end of life; thus, as humans our development occurs from “womb to tomb”. Moreover, though our first (and arguably the most influential) intimate relationship is the parent-child relationship, it has become quite salient that human development is influenced by a variety of interpersonal relationships that change over our lifespan. The significance of interpersonal connections for development and well-being across the lifespan is the focus of my research as director of the Linked Lives Research Laboratory at NDSU.

What does "Linked Lives" mean?

One of the unique characteristics of humans is that we are social beings. In fact, we can neither survive nor thrive without connections to other individuals. “Linked lives” refers to the core principle of developmental science (the field of study dedicated to understanding physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development across the lifespan) that humans do not develop alone; our lives are linked, and through those links we influence each other’s development and well-being. Taking the parent-child example again, though we often think about the great extent to which a mother’s attentiveness and nurturing influences her young child’s well-being, it is also true that the child’s temperament and behaviors influence the mother’s well-being. This link between mother and child is influential for both of their developmental trajectories. Broadening beyond the parent-child bond, there may be siblings, grandparents, cousins, friends, neighbors, etc. who all influence each other’s development to some extent. We are embedded in a dynamic system of social connections that mutually influence development and well-being.

What is social support?

Support from family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and communities is an integral factor influencing human development. Social support refers to comfort given to a person that allows him or her to feel cared for. Social support can take many forms. Instrumental support refers to the provision of tangible help, such as financial assistance or help shoveling your driveway. Emotional support refers to the provision of warmth and nurturance, such as acts of affection, empathy, or encouragement. Informational support is the provision of advice or guidance, for instance helping someone solve a problem. Finally, companionship support refers to support that provides a sense of belonging, such as engaging in shared social activities. A support partner may provide just one form of support, or they may provide multiple types of support. Generally, our closest support partners are likely to provide us with the most support (i.e., a good spouse provides affection, encouragement, advice, companionship, shares in housework, takes care of you when you are sick, etc.).

Why is social support important?

Recent research has documented the importance of social support for both physical and mental health throughout the lifespan. Interestingly, both real experiences of support (e.g., having someone tell you they are proud of you) and perceptions of support (e.g., feeling like someone is proud of you) matter for a person’s well-being. High quality social support is linked to better physical health and even greater longevity. Social support may impact physical health directly, for example by encouraging someone to exercise or visit the doctor when sick, but it also may impact health indirectly by reducing stress. Stress hormones can cause reduced immune functioning, however social support can buffer that stress by helping to improve an individual’s ability to cope. Social support also has important effects on psychological well-being, such as reducing the risk of depression. People with high quality social support tend to experience greater feelings of belonging and security as well as increased sense of self-worth. All of these findings highlight the significant protective effects of social support.

How does social support change as we age?

Our interpersonal connections and the types of social support we give and receive vary at different points across the lifespan. During childhood, the social support network tends to be primarily made-up of close family members (i.e., mom, dad, sibling, grandma) and due to their developmental stage, children tend to receive more support than they give. As we transition from childhood to early adulthood, the social support network tends to shift to focus more on relationships with friends and exploring romantic partnerships. In young adulthood, these peer relationships are often skilled at providing emotional and companionship support; however, during this stage of life young adults often rely on family for instrumental and informational support (i.e., call dad when the car won’t start, or ask grandma for life advice). In middle adulthood, as people focus on raising their families and/or progressing in their careers, they tend to have a wide social support network of family, friends, and colleagues. Middle-aged adults often provide more support than they receive (i.e., giving support to their children), but in general they tend to report satisfaction with their social support. In late adulthood, as individuals age, their social support networks tend to shrink in size. Older adults’ smaller support networks are in part a result of the loss of long-term support partners (i.e., death of a spouse, sibling, best friend), but are also due to a purposeful reduction of their close support partners to just the most rewarding relationships. Both because of increased life experience as well as recognition of closeness to death, older adults tend to develop a perspective that allows them to better appreciate and prioritize the relationships that provide them the highest quality of social support (i.e., they cut out the ‘riffraff’). Because of age-related declines in health, older adults may be less able to provide the types of support they provided in the past, especially instrumental support, yet they also develop a greater need for received support (i.e., caregiving).

Are there challenges that older adults face related to their social support?

Humans often perceive social support in terms of reciprocity or equity. People prefer to have equitable give-and-take in their relationships; that is, we want to both give and receive social support. However, as described above, our ability to give various types of social support changes over the lifespan. Often in late-life, older adults struggle with the feeling that they are taking more than they are giving. It is important for older adults to recognize and give themselves credit for the support that they provided earlier in life. For instance, a middle-aged child may see providing caregiving for an aging parent as an equitable exchange for all of the support they were provided by that parent as a young child. It is thus helpful to remember that the provision of social support develops and changes over the life-time. Moreover, older adults can be encouraged to focus on the types of social support that they can still give. For instance, though an aging adult may not be able to help out with yard work, he may be very adept at providing encouragement, advice, or companionship.

What have you found in your research regarding strengthening social connections as we age?

My own recent research on social integration suggests many avenues for improving social connections in late-life.

  • Older adults who feel more connected to their communities, report better overall social support. A prime way to stay engaged in your community in late-life is through volunteering. Older adults benefit from staying active and socially engaged in activities or causes that are important to them. For example, given their wealth of life experience, older adults often successfully serve as mentors to younger generations.
  • Fostering friendship bonds is quite important in late-life. This is particularly true upon the loss of a spouse, given that widows tend to rely greatly on social support received from friends. Participation in hobbies and social activities is a way to both make new friends and strengthen existing friendships. Families and aging professionals can help promote strong friendship bonds in late-life by encouraging social participation with peers.
  • More and more, older adults are using the internet to stay in touch with their families and friends. By taking advantage of the newest social media technologies (i.e. Facebook, Facetime, etc.), aging adults are able to maintain closer family ties as well as explore ways to make new friends. Though these new technologies can greatly help foster intergenerational connections, older adults report a steep learning curve on adapting to these new technologies. It is pertinent that younger generations (who are often digital natives) recognize their important role of helping the older generation to learn these new technologies.
  • Older adults place great value on intergenerational family relationships. These relationships are central to their well-being and people of all ages can consider their role in fostering social support across generations, keeping in mind that strengthening family relationships is a two-way street. People of all ages have a basic need to feel needed and appreciated. For example, showing affection and encouragement for loved ones is central to maintaining positive social connections. Being a good listener fosters quality social support at any age as feeling heard is key to a supportive relationship. To maintain strong intergenerational ties, people of all ages can be proactive in reaching out, staying in touch, and sharing their lives with the people they care about.

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