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Introduction: We were interested in building on previous studies showing the promotive and buffering roles of social support for emerging adults. We tested the associations of multiple domains of social support (i.e., family, friends) with measures of adjustment and adversity. Methods: Across four studies, U.S. college adults reported on domains of social support (family, friends, significant other), psychological adjustment (i.e., life satisfaction, flourishing), and psychological adversity (i.e., recent stress, depressive symptoms). Studies 1 and 4 were cross- sectional, whereas Studies 2 and 3 involved two, monthly survey reports. Study 4 was completed against the backdrop of early COVID-19 disruptions for college adults in spring 2020. Results: In each study, each domain of social support was positively correlated with measures of adjustment and negatively correlated with measures of adversity. Partial correlations indicated that support from friends was incrementally associated with nearly every outcome, whereas support from family was incrementally associated with a majority of outcomes. Multiphase studies supported unidirectional, but not bidirectional, effects from earlier adjustment onto later social support. Discussion: Overall, findings reinforce the importance of social support for young adults and highlight the distinct importance of family and friends. Findings also suggest that a lack of perceived social support may contribute to risks fitting views such as the stress generation theory among emerging adults.
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EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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Social Support and Psychological Adjustment among College Adults
Rachel Wesley & Jordan A. Booker
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO
Authors Note:
There was no external funding for this project. The authors have no conflicts of interest for this
project. Please address correspondence to Jordan Booker, Department of Psychological Sciences,
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211 or bookerja@missouri.edu.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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Abstract
Introduction: We were interested in building on previous studies showing the promotive and
buffering roles of social support for emerging adults. We tested the associations of multiple
domains of social support (i.e., family, friends) with measures of adjustment and adversity.
Methods: Across four studies, U.S. college adults reported on domains of social support (family,
friends, significant other), psychological adjustment (i.e., life satisfaction, flourishing), and
psychological adversity (i.e., recent stress, depressive symptoms). Studies 1 and 4 were cross-
sectional, whereas Studies 2 and 3 involved two, monthly survey reports. Study 4 was completed
against the backdrop of early COVID-19 disruptions for college adults in spring 2020. Results:
In each study, each domain of social support was positively correlated with measures of
adjustment and negatively correlated with measures of adversity. Partial correlations indicated
that support from friends was incrementally associated with nearly every outcome, whereas
support from family was incrementally associated with a majority of outcomes. Multiphase
studies supported unidirectional, but not bidirectional, effects from earlier adjustment onto later
social support. Discussion: Overall, findings reinforce the importance of social support for young
adults and highlight the distinct importance of family and friends. Findings also suggest that a
lack of perceived social support may contribute to risks fitting views such as the stress
generation theory among emerging adults.
Keywords: Social Support, Family, Friends, Well-Being, Stress
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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Social Support and Psychological Adjustment among College Adults
Social support involves the ways individuals perceive having more psychological and
relationship resources provided through their close bonds with others, including family members,
close friends, and romantic partners (Lakey & Orehek, 2011). Previous research has shown
social support to be beneficial for psychological adjustment (e.g., Lane & Fink, 2015; Spencer &
Patrick, 2009) and a buffer from psychological adversity (e.g., Pettit et al., 2011; Taylor et al.,
2014). For older adolescents and emerging adults, the importance of social support within
particular relationship domains could be in greater flux relative to earlier and later development
(e.g., Markiewcz et al., 2006; Pettit et al., 2011), as young adults are moving from the
home/hometown into new settings and new relationships (Arnett, 2014). Thus, it is important to
test the ways social support from family, friends, and romantic partners may be salient for
emerging adult adjustment and adversity. We considered multiple samples of US college adults
who reported on perceptions of social support from their families, friends, and significant others,
as well as reports of adjustment and adversity. We were interested in 1) replicating the ways
social support is associated with adjustment and adversity, 2) identifying the ways certain
domains of social support show incremental associations with adjustment, and 3) testing possible
bidirectionality between social support and adjustment across time points.
Social Support among Emerging Adults
We focus on traditional-age college adults who represent the developmental transition of
emerging adulthood. Arnett (2000, 2014) posits that emerging adulthood is a distinct period
between adolescence and the full assumption of adult roles (e.g., full-time employment,
independent living, romantic involvement and marriage, childrearing). This is a period that is
characterized by change, exploration, and the selection of enduring choices. For current US
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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individuals, this transition occurs from the late teens into the twenties, as young adults are
moving into new communities, testing new values, and establishing new roles for daily life
(Arnett, 2014). As part of these transitions, emerging adults must confront social challenges in
maintaining and building new, intimate relationships (Arnett, 2014; Nelson & Barry, 2005).
Hence, we focused on social support and ways adults perceive close partners providing important
resources for life. Social support is related to other important constructs such as attachment and
loneliness. Yet, social support differs meaningfully from these other constructs. Social support is
shaped by the early-established internal working models of attachment, and perceptions of
support are more readily recognized by securely attached adults (Vogel & Wei, 2005); however,
the possible benefits of social support are also moderated by attachment security, such that
insecurely attached adults may not gain the same benefits from perceived social support as
securely attached adults (Ditzen et al., 2008). Further, both social support and loneliness indicate
the quality of social relationships (Segrin & Passalacqua, 2010). Yet, social support differs in
that it involves the perceived provision of resources by close partners (i.e., information,
emotional support, physical resources), whereas loneliness involves discrepancies between
desired social connectivity and current connectivity with others.
As emerging adults manage transitions into future roles and opportunitiesas they begin
to move away from family and hometown friends (English et al., 2017; Paul & Brier, 2001),
move into college or new employment settings (e.g., Chiaburu et al., 2010; Kossek et al., 2011;
Zumbrunn et al., 2014), and as they begin exploring romantic relationships in earnest (e.g.,
Wider et al., 2019)social support is important for adjustment and adversity. Feeling well-
supported and validated by relationship partners is vital for emerging adults and a marker that
individuals are meeting criteria of adulthood (Markiewicz et al., 2006; Nelson & Barry, 2005).
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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However, social support can differ within and between individuals for multiple reasons. Often,
transitions into new settings, like college, can challenge how well emerging adults feel supported
by hometown family and peers and new peers in what is initially an unfamiliar social landscape
(e.g., Sharp et al., 2016). Further, while social support is a subjective evaluation of partners’
behaviors and resources, it is linked with other measures of partner behaviors (Haber et al.,
2007). That is, if relationships involve more positive and uplifting behaviors from partners,
social support should flourish. In contrast, if relationships are marked with conflict or neglectful
behaviors, social support should suffer. Lastly, individual characteristics can shape perceptions
of social support from others. For example, personality traits, like trait agreeableness (e.g.,
Ercan, 2017) and tendencies to experience gratitude (e.g., Kong et al., 2015) are each positively
associated with perceptions of social support. We argue that social support is important to
consider with reports of adjustment among emerging adults. Below, we review the ways social
support has been broadly associated with psychological adjustment and adversity.
Social Support and Psychological Adjustment
Our first aim was to replicate existing findings regarding social support and adjustment
among emerging adults. Both concurrent (e.g., Spencer & Patrick, 2009) and longitudinal studies
(e.g., Taylor et al., 2014) have shown social support to be positively associated with measures of
adjustment. These include measures of subjective well-being and happiness with the direction of
one’s life, as well as measures of psychological well-being and feelings of fulfillment and
purpose across personal and social domains (Friedman et al., 1998; Lane & Fink, 2015; Spencer
& Patrick, 2009; Taylor et al., 2014). Further, social support is inversely associated with
measures of adversity, including perceived stress (Distzen et al., 2008; Lee & Goldstein, 2015;
Segrin & Passalacqua, 2010) and depressive symptoms (Dressler, 1985; Milevsky, 2005; Pettit et
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al., 2011). Social support can be measured within domains of family (e.g., Pettit et al., 2011),
friends (e.g., Lee & Goldstein, 2016), and other peers (e.g., Friedmen et al., 1998), yet questions
remain on the extent certain sources of support may be most closely associated with functioning.
The few attempts to explicitly compare domains of social support have provided mixed findings.
For example, Lee and Goldstein (2016) found that support from friends informed stress, whereas
Pettit and colleagues (2011) found that family support informed depressive symptoms. The
second aim of this project was to test the ways social support across family, friends, romantic
partners were incrementally informative for reports of adjustment and adversity.
Possible Bidirectionality between Social Support and Adjustment
While social support is broadly associated with adjustment, fewer studies have
considered the ways social support and psychological adjustment are related over time. We
aimed to expand on this work and motivate our approach below.
Multiple theories point to the fundamental importance of positive affiliation and
relatedness with others (i.e., Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Ryan &
Deci, 2001). According to these views, when individuals feel more successful in building and
maintaining dependable relationshipswhen they have multiple, high quality relationships and
partners who will provide psychological and physical supportthey should feel more fulfilled
and satisfied with the direction of their lives. Existing findings reinforce these views, with larger
reviews supporting the fulfillment of affiliative and relational needs is positively associated with
adjustment and well-being (Patrick et al., 2007). Further, Lakey and Orehek (2011) argue that
people invest in perceptions of social support as forms of self- and relational regulation, and that
these attempts to recognize social resources are useful in promoting ongoing psychological
health. Hence, we were interested in the ways social support may predict later adjustment.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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In addition to the recognized importance of social relationships, theories point to the
benefits of positive experiences and positive feelings for other domains of life. Views such as the
Broaden-and-Build theory of emotions (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002) argue
that positive emotion experiences serve as motivators for psychological exploration and the
refinement of different skills in the environment, which leads to new psychological resources
that uplift and support individuals over time. In the context of relationships and social support,
individuals who experience more happiness and more fulfillment should be motivated to invest
in relationships and be more attentive to the positive aspects of those relationships. This view has
been supported. For example, Green and colleagues (2012) found that experiences of positive
affect had proximal and positive effects on indicators of social network size and satisfaction with
social relationships. Further, positive emotional experiences like gratitude predict greater
relationship quality in longitudinal studies (e.g., Algoe et al., 2013). Hence, we were interested in
the ways earlier measures of adjustment may inform later reports of social support. Overall, we
aimed to test support for bidirectionality between social support and adjustment.
The Current Study
This multi-study project addressed the ways three domains of social support (i.e., family,
friends, romantic partners) informed emerging adults’ reports of adjustment and adversity. We
addressed three primary questions in this project.
First, are we able to support and replicate previous associations between social support,
adjustment, and adversity? We hypothesized that reports of social support would be positively
associated with indicators of adjustment and negatively associated with indicators of adversity.
Second, are specific domains of social support incrementally associated with adjustment
and adversity when considered simultaneously? Given existing findings (e.g., Lee & Goldstein,
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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2016; Pettit et al., 2011), we hypothesized that family and friend support, but not romantic
partner support, to show incremental associations with reports of adjustment and adversity.
Third, would bidirectionality be supported between reports of social support and
adjustment across multiple time points? Based on theories regarding the importance of positive
affiliation and social support (Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Lakey & Orehek, 2011; Ryan & Deci,
2001) and the importance of positive life experiences (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson & Joiner,
2002), we expected bidirectionality to be supported in multi-phase studies.
To address these research questions, we studied four college samples: Study 1 included
concurrent reports of social support and adjustment; Study 2 included two, monthly reports of
social support and measures of subjective well-being (i.e., positive affect, life satisfaction); Study
3 included two, monthly reports of social support and measures of psychological well-being (i.e.,
psychological flourishing, thriving); and Study 4 included concurrent reports of social support,
adjustment, and adversity during COVID-19 disruptions to the college experience.
Method
The Current Samples
As part of a broader project ties of social and personality factors with well-being among
college students, four samples of US college adults were recruited to complete computerized
studies. Each study included reports about social support (i.e., family, friend, significant other).
Study 1 (n = 143; M age = 19.50 years, SD = 1.27; 82.5% women; 79.7% White; 9.8%
Asian or Pacific Islander; 3.5% Black; 3.5% Latinx; 3.5% Multiracial) recruited students from a
southeastern US university. Study 2 (n = 200; M age = 18.50 years, SD = 1.78; 81.2% women;
84.5% White; 4.5% Black; 3% Asian or Pacific Islander; 38.2% in a romantic relationship) and
Study 3 (n = 288; M age = 18.43 years, SD = .88; 68.4% women; 80.6% White; 9.0% Black;
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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4.9% Multiracial; 40.2% in a romantic relationship) included students from a central US
university. Lastly, Study 4 (n = 233, M age = 19.34 years, SD = 1.52; 36.9% women; 76.4%
White, 12.4% Black, 5.2% Multiracial; 33.9% in a romantic relationship) considered students
who had been attending a central US university full-time. These students had experienced recent
college disruptions due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic during the spring 2020
semester (Baker et al., 2020). While each study recruited students from Psychology courses,
most participants (~93% across all studies) represented majors other than Psychology (i.e.,
Biology, Marketing, English, Animal Sciences, Music, Engineering, Public Health, Journalism).
Procedures
Each study was conducted using computerized measures. Participants were invited to
participate either for extra credit relevant to a Psychology course (Study 1) or as part of a broader
research exposure requirement for an Introductory Psychology course (Studies 2-4).
1
Materials
Perceived Social Support
Participants completed the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (Zimet et
al., 1988) in each study. This scale includes 12 items on perceived support from the family (4
items), friends (4 items), and a significant other/romantic partner (“someone close”; 4 items).
Items were completed on a seven-point scale (1 = Very strongly disagree, 7 = Very strongly
agree; sample item, There is a special person who is around when I am in need.”).
2
Indicators of Adjustment
1
Students had alternative activities they could complete to fulfill this requirement instead of research participation,.
2
Study 1 involved a large set of other measures collected on a 1-5 scale. To reduce participant burden, the Perceived
Social Support scale was also collected on a 1-5 scale in this study.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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Subjective well-being. Measures of subjective well-being included life satisfaction
(Studies 1 and 2) and experiences with positive and negative affect (Study 2). Life satisfaction
was collected using the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al., 1985). This scale includes five
items completed on a 7-point scale (1 = Strongly disagree; 7 = Strongly agree; sample item, In
most ways my life is close to my ideal.”). Reports of positive and negative affect were completed
in Study 2 using the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule-Short Form (Thompson, 2007).
Participants reported experiences of positive (i.e., Determined) and negative (i.e., Nervous)
affect in the last week. Items were completed on a five-point scale (1 = Never; 5 = Always).
Psychological well-being. Participants completed measures of psychological well-being,
which included acceptance with one’s life, feelings of purpose, and positive affiliation with
others. Participants completed the Subjective Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky & Lepper, 1997) in
Study 1 and in both phases of Study 3. This 4-item scale addresses the ways participants view
their own happiness and compare their happiness to those around them. Items were completed on
a 7-point scale (1 = Less happy, 7 = More happy; sample item, Compared to most of my peers, I
consider myself). Participants completed the Flourishing Scale for both data waves of Study 3
and the single data wave of Study 4 (Diener et al., 2010). This 8-item scale addresses broader
aspects of fulfillment and purpose in life. Items were completed on a 7-point scale (1 = Strongly
disagree, 7 = Strongly agree; sample item, I lead a purposeful and meaningful life”). Lastly,
participants completed the Brief Inventory of Thriving in both data waves of Study 3 and the
single data wave of Study 4 (Su et al., 2014). This scale includes 10 items on subjective and
psychological aspects of adjustment and fulfillment, completed on a 5-point scale (1 = Strongly
disagree, 5 = Strongly agree; sample item, “I am achieving most of my goals”).
Indicators of Adversity
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Recent stress. Participants in Study 1 and in Study 4 provided reports of perceived recent
(within the last month) stress. Participants in Study 1 completed the Perceived Stress Scale
(Cohen et al., 1983), which included ten items about recent experiences where individuals did
not have the psychological resources to handle challenges and demands in daily life. Items were
completed on a 4-point scale (1 = Never; 4 = Very often; sample item, In the last month, how
often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?). In Study
4, participants reported on stress in the last month as part of the Patient Health Questionnaire
(PHQ; Kroenke et al., 2001). Ten items were collected on a three-point scale on forms of stress
(0 = Not bothered, 2 = bothered a lot; sample item, Financial problems or worries”).
Depressive symptoms. Participants completed reports of depressive symptoms in Study 4
using the PHQ-9 (Kroenke et al., 2001). Nine items about experiences of depressive symptoms
within the last two weeks were completed on a four-point scale (0 = Not at all; 3 = Nearly every
day; sample item, Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless”). The PHQ-9 has been shown to have
acceptable validity for screening depressive problems but may be limited for use as a diagnostic
tool of major depressive disorder (see Inoue et al., 2012). Here, we used the PHQ score averages
to compare relative participant scores, rather than assign classifications for depression.
Results
Analytical Plan
Table 1 provides descriptive statistics and internal consistencies for each Study.
Preliminary analyses determined whether attrition was associated with baseline differences
(Studies 2 and 3). Bivariate correlations addressed the first research question. Partial correlations
addressed the second research question, testing correlations of each domain while controlling for
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demographic influences (i.e., academic level, gender, romantic status) and other domains of
social support.
3
Cross-lagged latent models addressed the third research question.
Preliminary Analyses: Possible Differences given Study Attrition
For Studies 1 and 2, there was attrition between the first study point and the second point
one month later. Independent-samples t-tests determined whether participants differed on Time 1
measures given later attrition. For Study 2, 118 participants (59%) were not available at the
second time point. There were no differences in baseline reports of family (p = .743), friend (p =
.284), or romantic partner support (p = .305), nor for reports of positive affect (p = .543),
negative affect (p = .283), or life satisfaction (p = .681). For Study 3, 158 participants (54.9%)
were not available at the second time point. There were no differences in baseline reports of
family (p = .769), friend (p = .680), or significant other support (p = .523), nor for reports of
psychological flourishing (p = .313,), thriving (p = .923), or subjective happiness (p = .923).
Research Question 1: Associations of Social Support with Adjustment and Adversity
Bivariate correlations addressed whether domains of social support were positively
associated with reports of adjustment (each study) and negatively associated with reports of
adversity (Studies 1 and 4). Table 2 presents the correlations for Study 1. Each domain of social
support was positively associated with reports of adjustment (i.e., life satisfaction) and
negatively associated with adversity in the form of recent stress. Table 3 presents the correlations
for Study 2. Friend support was consistently associated with reports of subjective well-being
(i.e., positive affect) within Time 1 and Time 2. Table 4 presents the correlations for Study 3. All
domains of social support were significantly associated with endorsements of psychological
well-being (i.e., flourishing) within the time point. Table 5 presents the correlations for Study 4.
3
Romantic status was not collected for Study 1.
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All domains of social support were significantly associated with reports of adjustment and
adversity (i.e., depressive symptoms). Correlations were in the expected directions.
Research Question 2: Unique Associations of Domains of Social Support with Outcomes
Partial correlations addressed whether domains of social support showed incremental
associations with outcomes of adjustment and adversity. Correlations accounted for demographic
variables (age, gender, romantic status) and other domains of social support.
In Study 1 (see Table 2), only friend support was associated with all outcomes. In Study 2
(see Table 3), friend support was associated with all measures of subjective well-being between
the two study waves. In Study 3 (see Table 4), family support and friend support were associated
with reports of psychological well-being within the same study waves. In Study 4 (see Table 4),
all areas of social support were associated with reports of adjustment, friend and family support
were associated with stress, and only family support was associated with depressive symptoms.
Research Question 3: Bidirectionality between Social Support and Adjustment
Using Stata 15 (StataCorp, 2017), cross-lagged latent models tested for bidirectionality
between latent variables of social support and adjustment in Studies 2 and 3. For Study 2, latent
variables included Social Support (family support, friend support, significant other support) and
Subjective Well-Being (positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction) measured at Time 1
(baseline; T1) and Time 2 (one-month follow-up; T2). For Study 3, latent variables included
Social Support and Psychological Well-Being (subjective happiness, psychological flourishing,
and thriving) measured at T1 and T2. For each model, full-information maximum likelihood
(FIML) was used to account for missing T2 data, as there were no significant differences in
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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baseline data given attrition (see the preliminary analyses). Model fit indices were used to
determine model fit, in line with previously used criteria (e.g., Hooper et al., 2008).
4
Model fit for Study 2 was adequate (2[43] = 38.85, p = .652, RMSEA = .000 [95% CI =
.000, .039], CFI = .99). Structural effects for the Study 2 model are shown in Figure 1. T1
Subjective Well-Being had positive associations with T2 Subjective Well-Being and T2 Social
Support. T1 Social Support was not associated with T1 Subjective Well-Being.
Model fit for Study 3 was adequate (2[43] = 113.42, p < .001, RMSEA = .075 [95% CI
= .059, .092], CFI = .96). Structural effects for the Study 3 model are shown in Figure 2. Akin to
Study 1, T1 Psychological Well-Being had positive associations with T2 Psychological Well-
Being and T2 Social Support. T1 Social Support had a positive association with T2 Social
Support but did not have a robust association with T2 Subjective Well-Being.
Across each Study, earlier psychological adjustment uniquely informed later social
support, but there was no evidence of bidirectionality between adjustment and social support.
Discussion
The current study addressed questions about the importance of three dimensions of social
support for college adult adjustment and adversity. Using multiple studies, we addressed the
ways social support is associated with reports of adjustment and adversity (all Studies); the
unique contributions of family, friend, and romantic partner social support in informing
adjustment and adversity (all Studies); and possible bidirectionality between perceptions of
social support and endorsements of adjustment (Studies 2 and 3).
Assessment of Hypotheses
4
The chi-square test statistic is an indicator of overall fit. Values at the > .05 level imply acceptable fit. RMSEA
is an indicator of overall fit. Values less than .08 imply acceptable fit. CFI indicates incremental model fit compared
to the null. Values greater than .90 imply acceptable fit. SRMR was not calculated due to the use of FIML.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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We hypothesized that social support would be positively associated with endorsements of
adjustment (i.e., life satisfaction; flourishing) and negatively associated with endorsements of
adversity (i.e., recent stress). In each Study, this hypothesis was supported, adding to the growing
consensus that social support is broadly beneficial for young adults (e.g., Distzen et al., 2008;
Lane & Fink, 2015; Taylor et al., 2014). This is important, because emerging adults broadly, and
traditional-age college adults specifically, are navigating multiple challenges where support from
dependable relationships is a valuable resource (Arnett, 2014; Nelson & Barry, 2005).
We next addressed the incremental associations of specific domains of social support
with adjustment and adversity. This was based on questions about the salience of specific social
domains for emerging adults (e.g., Lee & Goldstein, 2016; Pettit et al., 2011). Early findings
found mixed evidence suggesting that family and friend support were salient for emerging adults.
Our findings broadly support these trends. Friend support showed the most incremental
associations with outcomes across studies. This fits with the ways friends and other peer-level
relationships take a more prominent role in the lives of late adolescents and early adults
(Markiewicz et al., 2006), and how dependable relationships with these individuals can
contribute to feelings of safety, validation, and belonging (Chiaburu et al., 2010; Zumbrunn et
al., 2014). Family support showed incremental associations with measures of psychological well-
being (Studies 3 and 4) and adversity (Study 4). However, there were few instances where family
support was robustly associated with subjective well-being. Findings suggest there may be
distinct benefits of family relations for safeguarding young adults from major stresses, but ties to
family are less central to daily feelings, relative to positive ties to peers (i.e., classmates, co-
workers). In contrast, support from romantic partnersa social domain that is often in flux for
individuals still transitioning into the emerging adulthood period (Shulman & Connolly, 2013)
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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showed intermittent associations with adjustment and adversity. Most of these associations were
with broader feelings of psychological fulfillment and purpose, more so than measures of
subjective well-being and adversity. As exploring and building intimate relationships is one of
the central challenges in early adulthood (Arnett, 2014), it makes sense that success in this area
and feeling supported by partners would serve to promote these broader aspects of psychological
adjustment. Yet, as there were many participants not in a current romantic relationship, more
remains to be seen on the unique contributions of support from partners in dating or marriage in
informing psychological adjustment and adversity.
Lastly, we addressed a question on possible bidirectionality effects between social
support and psychological adjustment between two time points. This question was shaped by
existing theories and research pointing to a) how facets of social connectedness fulfill
fundamental needs and should promote satisfaction and purpose in life (Deci & Ryan, 2000;
Lahey & Orehek, 2011; Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2001; Patrick et al., 2007),
and b) how positive experiences should broaden psychological resources and opportunities to
explore and appreciate domains of life, including by finding cause for positive evaluations of
one’s relationships (Algoe et al., 2013; Fredrickson, 2001, 2002). Across two studies with two
monthly data collections, we found support for unidirectionalbut not bidirectionaleffects
from earlier adjustment (subjective well-being in Study 2; psychological well-being in Study 3)
to later social support. It was the positive spiral of feeling happy and fulfilled at earlier times that
predicted greater positive evaluations of support across relationship domains. This is the first
finding to our knowledge addressing such cross-lagged effects between social support and
measures of adjustment. These results are important in considering ways to anticipate
relationship factors like social support and ways to promote or intervene in relationship
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
17
satisfaction and maintenance. For example, such considerations could be important for emerging
adults’ romantic relationships, which can experience systematic declines over longer spans of
time and with major transitions in the nature of the relationship (i.e., entry to parenthood; see
Mitnick et al., 2009). Incorporating approaches that encourage feelings of satisfaction, purpose,
and fulfillment broadly (Tay & Kuykendall, 2013) and approaches that facilitate feelings of
gratitude and receptivity toward appreciating others’ benefits (Algoe et al., 2013) could
strengthen existing interventions for repairing and strengthening relationships for adults.
Social Support, Risk, and Resilience
Our findings extend insights on the benefits of social support as buffers from adversity
and complements to resilience for college adults. Specifically, Study 4 showed family support as
closely associated with endorsed depressive symptoms against the backdrop of COVID-19
disruptions.
5
This connection with depressive symptoms is important. Challenges with
internalizing problems like depression are fairly common among traditional college-age adults
(e.g., Blanco et al. 2008), and depressive symptoms can be a concern across different points of
the college career (e.g., Booker & Dunsmore, 2017; Herman et al., 2011). This is a pressing
concern, as depressive problems coincide with poorer functioning and health for college
students, and as students may be hesitant to seek mental health services (Herman et al., 2011).
Being able to turn to intimate family relationships in times of distress and vulnerability
whether with acute personal struggles and setbacks or with chronic threats to physical and
financial healthmay serve as a uniquely beneficial social resource. These findings fit with
findings by Pettit and colleagues (2011) that across emerging adulthood, reports of family
support showed improvements with age, and that family, but not friend, support explained lower
5
Data collection took place shortly after college students were asked to end on-campus living and classes and
communities were widely quarantining in the U.S. in spring 2020.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
18
reports of depressive symptoms with age. Further, these findings fit with views such as the stress
generation hypothesis (see Hammen, 2006). This theory posits that a lack of social resources
increases the likelihood of experiencing stressful situations, exacerbating risks for aspects of
psychopathology (i.e., depression). Here, individuals who do not perceive support from their
families may feel less supported and/or struggle to connect with their family members (e.g.,
Haber et al., 2007), which could be contributing to higher endorsements of depressive problems.
These findings motivate additional work considering the ways these domains of perceived
support and the specific characteristics of relationships across multiple domains a) may be
changing over time and b) may have implications for additional social and clinical factors among
emerging adults.
More broadly, Study 4 addressed associations between social support, psychological
adjustment, and psychological adversity against the ongoing backdrop of the COVID-19
pandemic and major disruptions to daily life for emerging adults. While family support was most
closely associated with depressive symptoms, all forms of social support were associated with
adjustment and psychological fulfillment, pointing to the clear value of social resources across
the many areas of life for young adults (Arnett, 2014). More broadly, our findings align with
broader findings pointing to the distinct benefits of social resources for resilience in the face of
major setbacks and traumas in life. For example, Schmidt and colleagues (2019) found that
social support was a robust, positive predictor of greater personal growth among college students
who reported experiencing traumatic episodes (i.e., loss of home; sudden death of a family
member or close friend; life-threatening injury or accident) during adolescence, as well as a
comparison group of emerging adults who did not report experiencing traumatic episodes. The
regression effects of social support on growth was similarly strong for both adults who had
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
19
experienced a trauma and those who had not. Further, a longitudinal study on the impacts of
Hurricane Katrina on adult adjustment (M age = 25.5 years; SD = 4.4; Chan et al., 2015) showed
that perceptions of social support collected before the natural disaster occurred were negatively
associated with reports of posttraumatic stress one-year after the disaster for a group of directly
impacted adults. Social support reported one year after the disaster was negatively associated
with psychological distress four years after the disaster. Further, recent studies suggest that while
the college transition introduces personal and social stresses for many students, students’
spontaneous mentions of social relationships in their life stories (i.e., recognizing the ways they
miss family and friends at home; appreciating new relationships on-campus) were associated
with improvements in college belonging and subjective well-being, as well as large declines in
homesickness (Booker et al., under review). While current Study 4 findings were correlational,
they fit with the idea that resources in social support during jarring events provide important and
potentially lasting benefits for young adults (Segrin & Passalacqua, 2010; Vogel & Wei, 2005).
Again, a lack of social support resources could likewise have broad negative implications for
college adults (Hammen, 2006). Being unable to depend on family and peers for assistance
during threatening experiences may exacerbate risks and undermine resilience and recovery.
Limitations and Future Directions
This project had limitations given the study designs. Our focus on traditional-age college
adults was purposeful, given students’ traditional social challenges (Arnett, 2014; English et al.,
2017; Paul & Brier, 2001), but this focus prevented consideration of emerging adults in other
community contexts and limits generalizability of findings. Further, each sample was
predominantly White, limiting generalizability of findings to college adults representing different
racial and ethnic backgrounds. We relied exclusively on self-reports in each sample, which
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
20
introduces more concerns on possible bias in participant reports. Further, while the PHQ-9 has
shown validity in measuring relative differences in depressive problems among adults (Inoue et
al., 2012), we are limited in not considering additional reports of depression and other forms of
psychopathology. In contrast, our project was strengthened given multiple studies addressing
replication of findings, studies that spanned multiple regions of the United States, and two
studies that moved beyond a concurrent data collection design. Future work will benefit from
addressing the current limitations in advancing insights on social support. Studies that compare
broader age ranges of emerging adults, recruit samples representing multiple community
contexts (i.e., full-time workers not attending college, full-time college adults), recruit samples
representing broader racial and ethnic diversity within and beyond the United States, and that
measure multiple areas of mental health and functioning will advance important questions on
generalizability and nuance of social support findings across populations of emerging adults.
Conclusion
Considering four samples of U.S. emerging adults, we found broad support for the ways
perceptions of social support are beneficial for college adults. Measures of support from family,
friends, and significant others were positively associated with measures of adjustment and
negatively associated with measures of adversity. When controlling for the influences of other
domains of social support, friend support and family support showed incremental associations
with most outcomes. Further, when considering possible bidirectionality between social support
and adjustment across time points, only unidirectional effects from earlier adjustment to later
social support were supported. More work will be needed to generalize findings to more
representative adult populations, including samples with greater ethnic diversity and adults
beyond the college setting.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
21
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EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
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Table 1
Descriptive Statistics for Each Study
Mean
SD
Min
Max
Study 1
Family Support
4.40
.71
1.00
5.00
.91
Friend Support
4.32
.72
1.50
5.00
.94
Significant Other Support
4.33
.87
1.00
5.00
.96
Subjective Happiness
4.98
1.16
1.25
7.00
.87
Life Satisfaction
4.14
.90
1.60
5.60
.85
Recent Stress
2.65
.49
1.00
4.00
.87
Study 2
T1 Family Support
5.76
1.34
1.00
7.00
.93
T1 Friend Support
5.68
1.33
1.50
7.00
.92
T1 Significant Other Support
5.48
1.84
1.00
7.00
.96
T1 Positive Affect
3.51
.76
1.40
5.00
.80
T1 Negative Affect
2.56
.85
1.00
5.00
.81
T1 Life Satisfaction
5.01
1.36
1.00
7.00
.92
T2 Family Support
5.79
1.29
1.00
7.00
.97
T2 Friend Support
5.74
1.43
1.00
7.00
.94
T2 Significant Other Support
5.46
1.90
1.00
7.00
.95
T2 Positive Affect
3.45
.77
1.40
4.80
.76
T2 Negative Affect
2.43
1.05
1.00
5.00
.89
T2 Life Satisfaction
5.28
1.20
1.00
7.00
.90
Study 3
T1 Family Support
5.88
1.12
1.75
7.00
.89
T1 Friend Support
5.80
1.14
1.75
7.00
.92
T1 Significant Other Support
5.71
1.36
1.00
7.00
.94
T1 Subjective Happiness
4.90
1.08
1.50
7.00
.84
T1 Flourishing
5.74
.81
2.75
7.00
.99
T1 Thriving
3.99
.56
2.10
5.00
.91
T2 Family Support
5.89
1.07
2.50
7.00
.95
T2 Friend Support
5.83
.94
1.50
7.00
.90
T2 Significant Other Support
5.70
1.29
2.00
7.00
.92
T2 Subjective Happiness
4.96
1.05
1.00
7.00
.81
T2 Flourishing
5.80
.77
3.13
7.00
.91
T2 Thriving
4.01
.57
2.40
5.00
.92
Study 4
Family Support
5.44
1.34
1.00
7.00
.91
Friend Support
5.61
1.24
1.25
7.00
.91
Significant Other Support
5.37
1.58
1.00
7.00
.95
Recent Stress
.52
.40
.00
2.00
.80
Depressive Symptoms
.96
.69
.00
3.00
.90
Flourishing
5.54
.94
1.00
7.00
.90
Thriving
3.92
.62
2.00
5.00
.91
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
29
Table 2
Study 1 Pairwise Bivariate and Partial Correlations with Domains of Social Support
Bivariate Correlations
Family Support
Friend Support
Significant Other
Support
Gender
.08
.14
.05
Academic Level
-.19
-.10
-.08
Subjective Happiness
30
.35
.33
Life Satisfaction
.42
.38
.34
Recent Stress
-.28
-.36
-.32
Family Support
--
--
--
Friend Support
.46
--
--
Significant Other Support
.39
.30
--
Partial Correlations
Family Support
Friend Support
Significant Other
Support
Subjective Happiness
.14
.21
.19
Life Satisfaction
.26
.19
.16
Recent Stress
-.08
-.22
-.18
Note. Bolded correlations indicate associations at the < .05 level. N = 143. For Gender, women
received the higher value. Partial correlations account for demographic covariates and other
domains of social support.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
30
Table 3
Study 2 Pairwise Bivariate and Partial Correlations with Domains of Social Support
Bivariate Correlations
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T1 Significant
Other Support
T2 Family
Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Significant
Other Support
Gender
.17
.16
.17
.19
.09
.17
Academic Level
.00
.02
.05
-.25
.03
-.05
Romantic Involvement
.06
-.01
.39
-.03
-.17
.32
T1 Positive Affect
.28
.36
.20
.19
.38
.25
T1 Negative Affect
-.07
-.19
-.08
.00
-.29
-.18
T1 Life Satisfaction
.39
.53
.23
.27
.56
.25
T2 Positive Affect
.18
.33
.21
.23
.35
.24
T2 Negative Affect
-.01
-.20
.04
.00
-.31
-.01
T2 Life Satisfaction
.29
.44
.16
.37
.53
.33
T1 Family Support
--
--
--
--
--
--
T1 Friend Support
.53
--
--
--
--
--
T1 Significant Other Support
.26
.37
--
--
--
--
T2 Family Support
.66
.42
.14
--
--
--
T2 Friend Support
.39
.73
.17
.46
--
--
T2 Significant Other Support
.13
.27
.65
.18
.32
--
Partial Correlations
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T1 Significant
Other Support
T2 Family
Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Significant
Other Support
T1 Positive Affect
.12
.24
.09
.02
.29
.14
T1 Negative Affect
.04
-.16
-.06
.16
-.27
-.12
T1 Life Satisfaction
.15
.38
.04
.05
.46
.06
T2 Positive Affect
.02
.25
.12
.07
.25
.14
T2 Negative Affect
.08
-.24
.05
.14
-.33
.04
T2 Life Satisfaction
.08
.35
-.02
.18
.39
.18
Note. Bolded correlations indicate associations at the < .05 level. T1 n = 205. T2 n = .99. For Gender, women received the higher
value. Partial correlations account for demographic covariates and other domains of social support within the same time point.
Pairwise deletion was used for all correlations.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
31
Table 4
Study 3 Pairwise Bivariate and Partial Correlations with Domains of Social Support
Bivariate Correlations
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T1 Significant
Other Support
T2 Family
Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Significant
Other Support
Gender
-.06
-.06
-.05
-.02
.15
.16
Academic Level
.01
-.03
-.01
-.08
.02
-.01
Romantic Involvement
.07
.05
.35
.02
.07
.43
T1 Subjective Happiness
.41
.42
.19
.45
.45
.22
T1 Flourishing
.52
.59
.36
.53
.58
.33
T1 Thriving
.45
.52
.33
.41
.46
.41
T2 Subjective Happiness
.46
.32
.11
.50
.51
.24
T2 Flourishing
.51
.41
.27
.58
.64
.41
T2 Thriving
.54
.43
.28
.52
.59
.43
T1 Family Support
--
--
--
--
--
--
T1 Friend Support
.53
--
--
--
--
--
T1 Significant Other Support
.42
.49
--
--
--
--
T2 Family Support
.80
.45
.32
--
--
--
T2 Friend Support
.57
.71
.41
.64
--
--
T2 Significant Other Support
.37
.40
.71
.36
.54
--
Partial Correlations
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T1 Significant
Other Support
T2 Family
Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Significant
Other Support
T1 Subjective Happiness
.25
.27
-.06
.23
.22
.01
T1 Flourishing
.29
.39
.07
.22
.33
.08
T1 Thriving
.22
.33
.08
.14
.17
.28
T2 Subjective Happiness
.38
.13
-.11
.22
.30
.04
T2 Flourishing
.38
.17
.03
.26
.36
.13
T2 Thriving
.40
.20
-.03
.19
.33
.19
Note. Bolded correlations indicate associations at the < .05 level. T1 n = 288. T2 n = .131. For Gender, women received the higher
value. Partial correlations account for demographic covariates and other domains of social support within the same time point.
Pairwise deletion was used for all correlations.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
32
Table 5
Study 4 Pairwise Bivariate and Partial Correlations with Domains of Social Support
Bivariate Correlations
Family Support
Friend Support
Romantic Partner
Support
Gender
-.03
-.01
-.09
Academic Level
-.02
.16
.15
Romantic Status
-.15
-05
.20
Recent Stress
-.29
-.22
-.17
Depressive Symptoms
-.26
-.15
-.16
Flourishing
.47
.51
.45
Thriving
.42
.46
.43
Family Support
--
--
--
Friend Support
.46
--
--
Romantic Partner Support
.46
.56
--
Partial Correlations
Family Support
Friend Support
Romantic Partner
Support
Recent Stress
-.16
-.15
-.05
Depressive Symptoms
-.17
-.04
-.06
Flourishing
.27
.27
.14
Thriving
.21
.24
.16
Note. Bolded correlations indicate associations at the < .05 level. N = 233. For Gender, women
received the higher value. Partial correlations account for demographic covariates and other
domains of social support. Pairwise deletion was used for all correlations.
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
33
Figure 1
Study 2 Cross-Lagged Latent Model of Social Support and Subjective Well-Being
Note. Standardized structural effects are presented. Bolded values are structural or covariance effects at the = .05 level.
T2 Social
Support
T2 Positive
Affect
T2 Negative
Affect
T1 Social
Support
T2 Subjective
Well-Being
T1 Subjective
Well-Being
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T2 Life
Satisfaction
T1 Negative
Affect
T1 Life
Satisfaction
T1 Positive
Affect
T1 Significant
Other Support T2 Significant
Other Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Family
Support
.30 (.27)
.99 (.24)
.68 (.27)
-.24 (.25)
.77 (.08)
EMERGING ADULT SOCIAL SUPPORT AND ADJUSTMENT
34
Figure 2
Study 3 Cross-Lagged Latent Model of Social Support and Psychological Well-Being
Note. Standardized structural effects are presented. Bolded values are structural or covariance effects at the = .05 level.
T2 Social
Support
T2 Subjective
Happiness
T2 Flourishing
T1 Social
Support
T2
Psychological
Well-Being
T1
Psychological
Well-Being
T1 Family
Support
T1 Friend
Support
T2 Thriving
T1 Flourishing
T1 Thriving
T1 Subjective
Happiness
T1 Significant
Other Support
T2 Significant
Other Support
T2 Friend
Support
T2 Family
Support
.69 (.05)
-.02 (.10)
.33 (.13)
.60 (.12)
.96 (.08)
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