Pandemic parenting is challenging & eConnect Online can help

February 07, 2022

Originally posted in SFU News

by Melissa Shaw

COVID-19 has increased demand for mental health services for youth and families. In response, Simon Fraser University researchers have developed a virtual program supporting youth experiencing severe mental health issues—a program that is drawing global interest.

eConnect Online is the virtual adaptation of the 10-week Connect program, designed for parents of youth (8-18 years) at risk for serious mental health problems. The program fosters strong and secure parent-child relationships as a pathway to resilience and better mental health for both youth and their parents.

Connect was developed by psychology professor Marlene Moretti and researchers in SFU’s Adolescent Health Lab, in collaboration with government stakeholders, mental health centres, clinicians and parents. It has been implemented across the globe and achieved the highest ranking in demonstrated evidence of effectiveness by the California evidence-based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC).

Lin Bao, a doctoral student working with Moretti, led the virtual adaptation of eConnect Online in partnership with the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre, the Ministry of Child and Family Development and an international network of clinical scientists and mental health practitioners.

“eConnect Online doesn’t dictate how parents should parent; instead, it encourages parents through role-plays and reflection exercises to step-back and reflect on the attachment issues that may underlie with their youth’s challenges.” says Moretti, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Youth Clinical Psychological Science. She was recently honoured for her contributions to developmental psychology in Canada.

“Parents develop skills to identify and regulate their own feelings, to reflect or mentalize about what is their child’s mind and their feelings, and to use empathy to support their teen while still setting limits.”

The virtual format removed significant barriers for parents to attend groups and for healthcare providers to run groups, meeting urgent mental health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, the program has been implemented across Canada and internationally. More than 250 facilitators have been trained in B.C., Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, as well as in Sweden, Italy, Australia, China, South Africa, and Mexico.

Moretti says while more research is needed to fully evaluate the program, response to eConnect Online has been very positive, with families and clinicians adapting quickly to the online format and finding it easy to engage in group-based exercises and discussions.

“Results show significant increases in the security of parent-teen relationships, and decreases in youth mental health problems, parent depressed mood and stress,” says Moretti.

Results from international partners will also provide a better picture of the fit and value of eConnect Online across different countries and cultures.

“COVID-19 brought adversity, but adversity created hope and opportunity,” she notes. “Virtual healthcare delivery is here to stay, and eConnect Online can help us reach many more families around the world who otherwise might have been left behind.”