Promoting Children’s Emotional Well-Being in the Context of COVID-19: The SPACE Family Program SSHRC Insight Development Grant
Background: The COVID‑19 pandemic has created significant stress for parents of young children due to factors such as limited childcare, financial strain, social isolation, and poor mental health. Each of these factors is established to impact parental capacities to engage in supportive interactions that support child well-being. These risks are heightened during the preschool years, which are sensitive periods for children’s emotional and social development, forming the basis of life-long mental health and relationship skills.
Problem: There is an urgent need for accessible programs that help parents cultivate positive family relationships during and recovering from the COVID‑19 pandemic. Existing programs are inadequate to meet family needs due to the closure of in-person group-based services, minimal online programs for the preschool age range, and limited availability of individual therapists combined with increased family need.
We designed The SPACE Program (Supporting Parent And Child Emotional well-being) to directly respond to family needs now, with the potential for long-term impacts through its highly scalable approach. Our assessment will examine the benefits of two models, varying in intensity, compared to services as usual (SAU, free provincial parenting resource sheets).
Objective 1: Determine the benefits of the SPACE program (materials + online support group) on parenting stress and quality compared to SPACE-Lite (materials only) and SAU.
Objective 2: Determine the extent to which the SPACE program impacts child emotion-regulation development and if this relationship is mediated by parents’ emotional and behavioral change.
Objective 3: Identify baseline factors linked to differential efficacy of SPACE and SPACE-Lite.
Families (N = 300) will be recruited for the proposed research to examine efficacy of SPACE and SPACE-Lite, compared to SAU. SPACE brings together best-practices in emotion-focused parenting in a format guided by our Parent Advisory Board and our family-focused research on parent needs during the pandemic. SPACE includes the provision of materials (psychoeducational videos and hands-on emotion-focused activities) alongside an online parenting group to re-enforce skill acquisition and provide social support. SPACE includes eight weeks of services each with 20 minutes of video content and an hour-long group to connect to other parents and family-relationship experts (e.g. psychologists, social workers).
Mixed-methods assessments include parent-reported questionnaires, cognitive assessments of emotion regulation, and emotion-focused observations of parent-child interactions.
It is expected that SPACE will empower parents to reduce parenting stress, improve relationship quality, and support healthy socio-emotional child development in the face of pandemic-linked adversities. In the short-term, we expect this to result in improvements in child and parent well-being (i.e., lower parenting stress, lower mental health and behavioural problems) for families receiving SPACE or SPACE-Lite, compared to services as usual. By narrowing in on specific mechanisms of change linked to outcome success, we will be able to make targeted program revisions in future iterations to improve overall efficacy.
The SPACE program has high impact potential through the timely provision of supports to parents who experience significant stress during and after the pandemic. The innovative model of online program delivery can be readily expanded to serve families across Canada who may face barriers to accessing in-person services. SPACE holds long-term potential to mitigate negative effects on parenting stress on child development and promote long-term health and wellness.