The challenge of measuring social support

In studying the relationship between family support and post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms in adolescents in group homes, we predicted that having a supportive family would be correlated with less severe PTS symptoms. We found a reliable scale, the Trauma Symptom Checklist (Wolpaw et al., 2005), for PTS symptoms, but had a difficult time deciding how to measure social support. There is evidence to suggest that a high level of perceived social support is associated with fewer trauma-related symptoms in adolescents (e.g. Bal et al., 2006), but we wanted to see whether or not family-specific support would mitigate PTS symptoms in traumatized teens. There are some validated measures to gauge social support generally (e.g. Sarason et al., 1983). However, they did not fulfill our requirements of differentiating between family members, an aspect we wanted to explore, as some researchers highlight the prevalence of sibling support (Milevsky & Levitt, 2005).

Since we did not find a measure to account for all the variables we considered important, we designed our own, which included a Likert-scale ordinal question about the quality of the support, a nominal question about the specific family member, and an ordinal question about frequency of visitation. The downside of this is that it has not been empirically tested and may have problems with validity and reliability. It has not undergone previous tests to check its interrater reliability or internal consistency. It does, however, have face validity, which Rubin and Babbie (2008) describe as appearing to measure what we intend to measure.


Bal, S., Crombez, G., Van Oost, P., & Debourdeaudhuij, I. (2006).The role of social support in well-being and coping with self-reported stressful events in adolescents. Child Abuse & Neglect,  27(12): 1377-1395.

Milevsky, A. & Levitt, M. J. (2005). Sibling support in early adolescence: Buffering and compensation across relationships. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2(3): 299-320.

Rubin, A. & Babbie, E. R. (2008). Research Methods for Social Work (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Brooks/Cole.

Sarason, I.G., Levine, H.M., Basham, R.B., et al. (1983). Assessing social support: The Social Support Questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 127- 139.

Wolpaw, J.M., Ford, J.D., Newman, E., Davis, J.L., & Briere, J.(2005). Trauma symptom checklist for children. In Grazo, T, Vincent, G & Seagrave, D (Eds), Mental health screening and assessment in juvenile justice (152-165). New York: Guilford Press.

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