For a lucky few of us, support systems are automatic. They’re effortlessly there to support us in good times and bad.
For most of us, though, accessing support is more complicated: The typical social supports like family, faith communities, neighborhoods, or friend groups may feel inconsistent, unhealthy, or simply nonexistent.
All of us need support, and learning to identify and grow social support is often a key part of good therapy. That’s why I created this Social Support building worksheet for therapists, social workers, school counselors, and social-emotional educators. Keep reading to download and learn more.
Download This Worksheet
This worksheet comes in a two-part packet, including a version not shown here that is slightly edited to be more appropriate for teens and tweens.
This simple worksheet is a tool for professionals, parents, and educators to help kids and adults grow the capacity to identify the support that is available to them. Through cultivating awareness of the support options we have, we can, with practice, grow better at support seeking – that is, actively reaching out to and depending on the resources we have available to us. Behavior that, according to Johns Hopkins University 1, is linked to improving mental health.
I created this worksheet based on the idea that therapy is never just between client and therapist. Therapy always involves individual people and the systems they’ve been part of.
I think therapists can work most effectively when they build clients’ capacity to strengthen connections with others. Keep reading to learn how research supports this idea.
Why Support Building Matters
Research is clear: relationships and mental health are connected.
By some measures, our resilience in the face of traumatic experiences is heavily influenced by our ability to seek support and rely on others for support to get through difficult times.
Research has found that older people live longer, healthier lives when the quality of relationships is higher, 2 and, based on a pair of nationally representative studies done in 2013, suicide rates may 30% percent lower over a lifetime for individuals who report high social support. 3
Good therapy helps us identify, use, and develop supportive relationships in our lives.
Emotional Challenges in Support Building
This worksheet may be a tough one for some people. For some people, this worksheet might trigger painful emotions. For many, isolation and loneliness are exactly what draw us to therapy.
One important task of a therapist is acting as a supportive relationship that offers a bridge to sustainable and supportive (and free!) relationships in the future.
For many who have grown up in a family with dysfunction (which flourishes in isolation) building a support network may be tough work.
Good therapy can help us developing the skills to become someone who can participate in mutual relationships and have a healthy support system. Sometimes, a social support identifying worksheet like this one may play a small role in that work.
Building a support network often takes time, but sometimes simple reminders of the existing support available to us can foster a sense of well-being. Although we may momentarily feel alone or isolated, this completed support worksheet can be a visual reminder that we have people, places, and resources to support us.
Thinking Creatively about Support Systems
(aka, why I included plants, pets, and toys)
You might notice that not all supports on this worksheet are people.
All of us – even those of us who with an avoidant attachment style – have things outside of ourselves that bring us support, soothing, and comfort. Those things are also part of a support system!
Pets can be an important part of a person’s support system – the emotional regulation we get from playing with a dog or stroking the fur of a cat soothe our brains and ways that are similar to support from another person. 4
Like the inclusion of pets, this worksheet focused on identifying support resources also includes sections where we can identify the places, online communities, and even the inanimate objects that weave together to form our support system. Here’s a little more about each of those and how they can play a role in a healthy support system:
Pets, plants, and stuffed animals.
Like my getting to sleep flowchart, this support system worksheet recognizes the role that plants, pets, and stuffies play in our lives.
Yes, even as adults – by one research study’s measures – 40% of adults sleep with a stuffed animal 5, so let’s go ahead and normalize that.
Having something to care for that isn’t too demanding can help us experience soothing and grow our capacity to give ourselves kind care. The gentle presence of plants, the emotional mirroring of a pet, or the safe, soothing presence of a beloved stuffed animal are all valid parts of a support system.
Support offered by online communities.
Traditionally, therapists and mental health professionals have devalued the positive role that the online worlds we inhabit can play in our lives.
While it’s true that a certain type of social media use can negatively impact mental health 6, body image 7, and relationships 8, research is clear that online communities – including gaming communities, discord servers, and even interest-based forums – can be places to cultivate social support. 9
While virtual relationships often don’t have the emotional vibrance of face-to-face relationships, the shift to online models for mental health therapy that happened in early 2020 proves that virtual relationships can have a powerful positive impact.
Places as support.
When I lived in downtown Seattle during grad school, on afternoons when I felt very overwhelmed, I would sometimes walk down to the ferry terminal and board a boat headed for Bainbridge Island. The gentle rumble of the ferry, the fresh air, and the incredible views were often very grounding.
The 30-minute trip across the sound became a place and a practice that was key to the support that got me through the toughest times.
It’s experiences like those that informed my choice to include places on my worksheet for cultivating support systems.
The kid and adolescent versions of this social support worksheet invite kids to think about the place they feel most okay at in school, while the adult version simply invites people to consider the locations where they feel soothed.
Traditionally, support systems are thought of as people. Historically, our families, neighborhoods, and religious communities would make up an interrelated network of support.
In today’s world, however, it’s more common to struggle to find community.
Neighbors may not talk much, families may have been disrupted by divisive politics, and more and more of us find ourselves orienting to the world outside of religious tradition. However, the need for community hasn’t gone away through this cultural shift.
When we find ourselves struggling to identify a support network, it can be helpful to focus on what resources and communities are available to us. In a post-COVID era, social clubs, affinity groups, and support groups are easier to find than ever.
Support groups can be an especially helpful resource for people who are struggling with substance use or mental health issues.
A support group can be a way to practice the relationship skills needed for building thriving interpersonal relationships outside of the context of a support group.
This worksheet comes in a two-part packet, including one version that is slightly edited to be more appropriate for teens and tweens.
Download this Worksheet
Image Description for Screen Readers
The image is of a worksheet titled, “Building My Support System.” The worksheet is made to look like a three-hole-punched yellow notepad with a grey top binding. The sheet contains the following prompts, each followed by lines for writing: “Three (written as a big number) people I trust most.” “Someone I can call anytime.” “Someone who I trust to hold my safety plan.” “Safe place I can hang out.” “A person I let see me cry.” “A person who lets me talk about my feelings.” “Two (written as the number two) people I can text sad memes to.” “My plants, pets, or stuffed animals.” “An online community where I can get support.” “A person I’m ok being silent with” “or” (the word “or” is written between two asterisks) “A person I could talk with for hours.”
- Bethell, C., Jones, J., Gombojav, N., Linkenbach, J., & Sege, R. (2019). Positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relational health in a statewide sample: Associations across adverse childhood experiences levels. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(11):e193007. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007[↩]
- Li, S., Hagan, K., Grodstein, F., & VanderWeele, T.J. (2018). Social integration and healthy aging among U.S. women. Preventive Medicine Reports, 9(1): 144-148. doi:10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.01.013.[↩]
- Kleiman, E. M., & Liu, R. T. (2013). Social support as a protective factor in suicide: Findings from two nationally representative samples. Journal of affective disorders, 150(2), 540-545. [↩]
- Hawkins, R.D., Robinson, C. & Brodie, Z.P. (2022). Child-dog attachment, emotion regulation and psychopathology: The mediating role of positive and negative behaviors. Behavioral Sciences, 12(4): 109. doi: 10.3390/bs12040109[↩]
- Steingold, D. (2017). Survey: 4 in 10 adult Americans still sleep with teddy bear. Study Finds. https://studyfinds.org/teddy-bears-stuffed-animals-adults/[↩]
- Naslund, J.A., Bondre, A., Torous, J., & Aschbrenner, K.A. (2020). Social media and mental health: Benefits, risks, and opportunities for research and practice. Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science, 5: 245-257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41347-020-00134-x[↩]
- Rounsefell, K.. Gibson, S., McLean, S., Blair, M., Molenaar, A., Brennan, L., Truby, H., & McCaffrey, T.A. (2019). Social media, body image, and food choices in healthy young adults: A mixed methods systematic review. Nutrition & Dietetics, 77(1): 19-40. https://doi.org/10.1111/1747-0080.12581[↩]
- Christensen, S.P. (2018). Social media use and its impact on relationships and emotions. BYU ScholarsArchive. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/6927[↩]
- Qu, C. & Zhang, R. (2021). The role of online communities in supporting mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 28(1): 38-41. https://doi.org/10.1145/3481836[↩]