Instruments to Measure Social Support and Related Constructs in Pregnant Adolescents: A Review

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Social Support and Adolescent Pregnancy

Social support is comprised of a multidimensional collection of resources available to an individual through social ties to other individuals and groups (Lin, Simeone, Ensel, & Kuo, 1979; Norbeck, Lindsey, & Carrieti, 1981). Moreover, satisfaction with social support is influenced by personality factors such as self-esteem and a feeling of control over the environment (Sarason, Levine, Bashman, & Sarason, 1983).

Social support consists of two basic terms: (1) the perception that there is a sufficient number of available others to whom one can turn in times of need, and (2) a degree of satisfaction with the available support (Vaux, 1988). Perceived support refers to the quality of interpersonal relationships in one's network. Support from different sources, such as family or friends, may serve different functions and have different consequences for adjustment (Litwak & Szelenyi, 1969). Social support from a particular significant other is more helpful in meeting particular needs than generalized support from several others (Eckenrode & Gore, 1982; Wandersman & Wandersman, 1980; Weiss, 1969). For example, people usually have an intuitive sense of what comprises support and whom they regard as supporters or supportive, but the specific definition of social support depends on study design (Brown, 1986). Even though social support buffers the individual from stressful experiences, there is a lack of conceptual agreement on what social support is and how it functions to protect health, or to buffer the effects of stressors (Norbeck et al., 1981; Vaux, 1988). As a result, social support has been measured differently from study to study.

Most researchers have assumed that support is uniformly positive in its effects on well-being. However, some research suggests that this may not be true. Interpersonal relationships within social networks depend on an implicit expectation of reciprocal exchanges. While reciprocation is intended to be supportive, it often is the antithesis (Eckenrode & Gore, 1982; Tilden, Nelson, & May, 1990; Wortman & Lehman, 1985). Others have expanded this theory by listing aspects of human relationships that include unwelcome advice, incurred obligation, and broken promises which add burdens to the relationship and may lead to conflict (Foa & Foa, 1980).

This review examines some of the key issues related to measuring social support, and identifies specific instruments which have been used in conducting research with pregnant adolescents. Issues concerning the major external and internal variables that affect social support for the pregnant adolescent are raised and relevant questions are presented to guide researchers in the choice of a social support instrument. Twenty-eight social support instruments are described by author, availability, length and item type, psychometric properties, and selected references and notes. Although not an exhaustive list, these instruments represent the broad spectrum of measurement tools available, and reflect those previously used in a variety of social support research endeavors.

External Variables that Affect Social Support for the Pregnant Adolescent

Adolescence is a time of rapid developmental change and stress, which is perceived differently by each individual and influenced by personal and demographic characteristics. Also, the psychological and physical response to stress and coping patterns may affect developmental outcomes (Matteson, 1975; Yeaworth et al., 1980). When life-change events occur for adolescents, more stress is added to this already tumultuous time. Evidence indicates that a positive response to such events is facilitated by a socially supportive environment. In the absence of this environment, the maintenance of personal and social functioning is difficult, although not all kinds of social support are perceived to be beneficial (Lowenthal & Haven, 1968; Thompson, 1986). …

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