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How supportive are our families?

Purpose and background

This article looks at the supportive family networks of New Zealand adults (those aged 15 years or older).

How supportive are our families? is one of several articles that give a high-level view of the social networks of New Zealanders. The other articles look at: family functioning, connection to neighbourhood, contact with supportive friends, and club membership.

The common characteristic of any social network is that it provides an individual with resources or benefits. A key resource provided is social support. This can come in many forms – companionship, advice and guidance, or practical, emotional, or financial support.

Families and whānau are a central social network. They give individuals a sense of identity and belonging. Families provide care, nurturance, support, socialisation, and guidance for one another (Superu, 2015). Having family members who can help and support in times of need can be an important buffer to life’s stresses and challenges. They make life easier by adding their skills and advice, or just as a listening ear.

The 2014 New Zealand General Social Survey collected data that helps us better understand how supportive family networks function. We look at: how many supportive family members people have, who they are, where they live, and the main ways New Zealanders keep in touch with them.

Most of us have family members who support us

Family networks range from very small to large in size. However, social support is more likely to be available and accessible from larger social networks. Inversely, the smaller the social network and the more isolated individuals are, the less access they have to resources to overcome difficulties (Policy Research Initiative, 2005).

Nearly all New Zealand adults (97 percent) had one or more family members who provided them with help and support. Over half (53 percent) had one to four family members they could turn to, and a further 46 percent had five or more supportive family members.

Figure 1

Graph, Number of supportive family members, total population, April 2014–March 2015.

Some have no supportive family to call on

A small but important number of New Zealanders (3 percent) said they either had no family members who could help or support them, or they didn’t like to ask for support from family.

Single parents and those not living in a family nucleus (ie those living by themselves or in a flatting situation) were significantly more likely to say they had no supportive family members (7 percent and 10 percent, respectively).

Figure 2

Graph, Number of supportive family,by family type, April 2014–March 2015.

Additionally, single parents and those not living in a family nucleus were more likely to report having fewer supportive family members overall than couples (with or without children in the household).

People with no family support more likely to feel lonely

People with limited networks may experience isolation and loneliness, which can be detrimental to their physical and mental well-being. Conversely, those with extensive social networks are able to call on these for assistance in times of need.

Nearly one-quarter of those who said they had no supportive family reported they’d felt lonely some or more of the time in the last four weeks. This was a higher proportion than for those with one or more supportive family members.

For instance, 15 percent of those with one to four supportive family members, and 12 percent of those with five or more supportive family members, said they’d felt lonely some or more of the time in the last four weeks.

People with the largest family networks (11 or more supportive family members) were the most likely (69 percent) to say they had not felt lonely at all in the last four weeks.

Women have more supportive family members than men

Nearly half of all women had five or more supportive family members – 37 percent had five to 10 supportive family members, and a further 10 percent had 11 or more. In comparison, 32 percent of men had five to 10 supportive family members, and 9 percent had 11 or more.

Older New Zealanders (65 years or older; 65+) were less likely to have large family networks. Only 37 percent of people aged 65+ had five or more supportive family members, compared with 44 percent of 15–24-year-olds, 49 percent of 25-44-year-olds, and 43 percent of those aged 45 to 64 years.

Close family members provide most support

New Zealand adults were most likely to get help and support from immediate family members. Well over half (63 percent) were supported by their partner or spouse, 50 percent by their parents, 45 percent by their siblings, and 43 percent said they got help and support from their children. In comparison, fewer than 20 percent received help from in-laws or aunts, uncles, and cousins. Only 8 percent received help from other family members (eg grandparents).

Figure 3

Graph, Type of supportive family people have, April 2014–March 2015.

Which family members people get support from differed by the type of family they live in. For example, people living in a couple-with-no-children family were most likely to get help and support from their partner (95 percent) or from their children who don’t live with them (50 percent) than people in other family types. Single-parent families reported having the highest rates of support from parents (68 percent), siblings (55 percent), and uncles/ aunts/cousins (24 percent) of all family types.

Figure 4

Graph, Supportive family members, by family type, April 2014–March 2015.

Men rely on partners, while women have wider support

In general, women were more likely than men to report getting help and support across the whole range of family members. An exception to this was for partners. Men were more likely to say they received support from a spouse or partner than women did – 66 percent compared with 61 percent.

Home is where the main support is

Of the New Zealand adults who said they had supportive family, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) had a family member living in the same house or flat as them that they could get help and support from. Nearly one-fifth (18 percent) had supportive family in the same neighbourhood, and 46 percent had family members they could count on in the same town, city, or rural area. A further 39 percent had supportive family living in a different region, and around one-fifth (22 percent) had supportive family living overseas.

Older New Zealanders (65+) were less likely to live with a supportive family member than other New Zealand adults. Only 63 percent did so, compared with 74 percent of 25–44-year-olds, and 78 percent each of 45–64-year-olds and 15–24-year-olds.

How we stay in touch changes with physical distance from family

People have many ways to stay in contact with each other and maintain relationships – by talking face-to-face, speaking on the telephone or video, or through written communication. However, face-to-face contact is perhaps the gold standard of social contact (Nardi et al, 2002). People need real, human, personal interactions for relationships and connections to develop (Statistics NZ, 2012).

Unsurprisingly, the way New Zealand adults stayed in contact with family not living in the same household differed by how close by those family members lived. They were most likely to talk face-to-face when family lived nearby. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of those with supportive family in their neighbourhood, and half (49 percent) of those with supportive family in the same town, talked in person as their main way of communicating.

The telephone was the main means of communication when family lived outside their town or overseas. Video conversation was also important for those with family living overseas.

Figure 5

Graph, Main means of communicating, by where family live, April 2014–March 2015.

Older New Zealanders use the phone more to keep in touch

Keeping in touch face-to-face declined with increasing age, while staying in touch by phone increased. Older New Zealanders were less likely than younger people to have face-to-face contact as their main way to keep contact with supportive family living in the same town.

New Zealanders aged 45–65 were just as likely to stay in contact with family living in the same town face-to-face or by phone (47 percent). People aged 65+ were much more likely to stay in touch by telephone (59 percent). Only 37 percent of this age group had in-person contact as their main way of keeping in touch. This may mean older New Zealanders feel more isolated from their family, or it may make the contact they have less satisfying.

Figure 6

Graph, Main communication with supportive family in same town, by age group, April 2014–March 2015.

Social media helps people keep in touch

While social networking websites (such as Facebook or Twitter) have increased in accessibility and popularity over the last decade, in 2014 they were not yet a main means of staying in touch with supportive family not living in the same household.

Overall, around one-third (32 percent) of New Zealanders used a social networking website to stay in touch with family members who didn’t live with them.

Women were more likely than men to use social networking to stay in touch with family – over one-third of women (37 percent) used social networking for this purpose compared with around one-quarter (26 percent) of men.

Young people more likely to use social media for family contact

Younger generations generally favour and adapt to new technologies faster than older generations (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004). This is evidenced by the fact that younger New Zealanders were more likely to use social networking websites to stay in contact with family members. Nearly half (48 percent) of those aged 15–24 years used social media for this purpose, while 42 percent of 25–44-year-olds had done so. In comparison, a little under one-quarter (24 percent) of 45–64-year-olds, and only 11 percent of people aged 65+ used social networking to keep in touch with family not living with them. 

Summary points

Supportive family plays a crucial role in individual and family functioning and well-being by providing help and support. Analysis shows that the size and composition of supportive family networks differed by characteristics such as family type, stage of life (age group), and sex.

Nearly all New Zealanders had family they can turn to at times of need. However, some groups were more, or less, likely to have larger family support networks. Single parents and those not living in a family nucleus were more likely to report having no supportive family members, and lower numbers of supportive family overall than couples (with or without children in the household).

Close family members provided the most help and support. Which family members someone was most likely to turn to differed by the type of family a person lives in. Couples-without-children relied on their partners the most for support (95 percent) while single parents were most likely to rely on their parents (68 percent).

Using social networking websites to keep in touch with family was popular among younger New Zealanders – nearly half of those aged 15–24 years used social media to stay in contact with family not living with them.

Being able to identify who does and doesn’t have strong family support networks provides valuable clues for policy makers about how to understand and facilitate the development of social networks, and to identify who may be in need of more help and support.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2004). Measuring social capital: An Australian framework and indicators. Available from abs.gov.au

Nardi, BA, & Whittaker, S (2002). The Place of Face-to-Face Communication in Distributed Work. In Hinds, PJ, & Kiesler, SB. Distributed Work. MIT Press.

Policy Research Initiative (2005). Measurement of social capital: Reference document for public policy research, development, and evaluation. Ottawa: Statistics Canada

Statistics New Zealand (2012). Objectives of the 2014 New Zealand General Social Survey’s social networks and support rotating module. Available from www.stats.govt.nz

Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit (2015). Families and Whānau Status Report 2015. Available from ww.superu.govt.nz

Tables

For more detailed data, see the Excel table in the 'Available files' box. If you have problems viewing the file, see opening files and PDFs.

Citation
Statistics New Zealand (2015). How supportive are our families? Retrieved from www.stats.govt.nz.

ISBN 978-0-908350-00-1 (online)
Published 8 October 2015
Updated 17 December 2015 (tables added)

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