blog ● 26 Feb 2024

Emotional support, family and wider socio-economic inequalities

LAT 53.96 LNG -1.07

Our working definition

Defining something you feel is always complex and often there is a strong sense that words do not make justice to the wealth of emotions one feels. Our project therefore started with an ambitious aim - that of voicing young people’s understanding of what emotional support feels like, what it ought to be, and what shape and form it can take and finally who does it involve.

We began our project by adopting a temporary, working definition, that identifies emotional support as a positive expression of “empathy, care, reassurance, and trust, in the context of having someone to talk to and a space for expressing emotions” (Stapley et al, 2021:2). Soon from our research findings, it became clear that this definition also allows us to consider and reflect on what the lack of emotional support and trustful relationships might mean for young people and in particular for their own emotional and personal development.

For example, the presence of emotional support does not necessitate the physical presence of family members and neither does the presence of family members lead to emotional well being. In fact young people identified that even if family members are elsewhere, having communication over the phone and online or via the transfer of financial resources, their support is felt. Equally, the presence of parents is not directly linked to the provision of emotional support, partly as adults have their own issues to deal with, even if it is at the expense of young people’s emotional well being.

Our participants’ definition

Inviting participants to take part in interviews and participatory research allows the creation of narratives and images that capture how young people experience the presence or absence of emotional support. The review of these definitions remains ongoing and perhaps not surprisingly, words like ‘trust’ and ‘care’ often come up when our young participants are asked to reflect on what emotional support means to them.

On reflection ‘trust’ needs time to build and caring is often seen as demanding and ongoing activity. What our participants, among others, also identified is the importance of ‘time’ - identifying the need of taking the time to care, and the necessary time to build trust. One could assume that devoting time is down to individuals, i.e. remains within their choice to use (or not use) time to build relationships. What however, if time is not available on a collective basis? Working seasonally or in a precarious environment makes a difference for the time a parent has to offer time and care, not to mention the security of their own feelings in providing and securing the lives of the younger members of their families. If many people are collectively working in a seasonal or precarious environment then the -collective - time for care is reduced. The risk therefore is that by individualising time or relationships, might often mean that we miss on the importance of wider socio-economic inequalities. What if the lack of time applies not just to an individual (or a few of them) but for many in a given community?

Family relationships within the local economy

Family relationships are located within a particular economy. The capacity of the local economy to provide welfare security (e.g. access to health support), job security (e.g. permanent jobs), space (e.g. housing, public parks) and nurture relationships is key for those living and growing up in it. Emotional support is nurtured within personal relationships but the latter are conditioned by the local economy.

For example, important relationships for young people often refer not just to immediate family members or networks of kin (e.g. aunt, grandfather, neighbour) but also often include people that might represent the ‘significant others’ that young people have identified as sources of support. These ‘significant others’ are providing their support in their professional capacity (e.g. youth workers, local community group coordinators, public officials) or on a personal basis (e.g. friends and acquaintances). Often these significant others take a more important role in providing emotional support to young people, and for this to materialise those in these professional roles need time and resources (often funded via public and local government).

Local economy and young people

Young people voiced their experiences both in terms of labour market conditions but also often on the affordability of housing and living costs. From the one hand York would be regarded as a ‘safer bet’ for finding employment, though highly precarious, but equally it is more expensive to live in, pushing many young people with precarious income in the outskirts of the City. In Scarborough, the seasonal labour market supports income generation but does not address wider security issues in terms of transitioning to a stable role within the labour market with young people often feeling a dilemma of whether they would stay and cope or relocating and putting in distance their relationships. The role of local government and authorities would also play a crucial role in professional services available - rendering the local economy as a societal context where multiple individual experiences and transitions to emotional health and security take place. The economies of time, care and emotional support are thus more complex and often structural to both young people and the familial relationships that they are part of.


Stapley E, Vainieri I, Li E, Merrick H, Jeffery M, Foreman S, Casey P, Ullman R, Cortina M. A Scoping Review of the Factors That Influence Families' Ability or Capacity to Provide Young People With Emotional Support Over the Transition to Adulthood. Front Psychol. 2021 Oct 14;12:732899. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.732899. PMID: 34721198; PMCID: PMC8555465.

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