Is parental loneliness leading to less playtime for children?

Occupational therapy study among nearly three dozen research projects receiving SSHRC grants.

Loneliness is no longer the strict domain of the lonely. Over the past few decades, many parents have struggled to meet the demands of a workplace that can reach out to them 24/7 while caring for children and aging parents, and maintaining satisfying social relationships.

The result is widespread chronic loneliness-the potential implications of which are many. But none are as intriguing, at least for one University of Alberta occupational therapy researcher, as the possibility that chronic loneliness has contributed to the decline of free and "risky" outdoor play, which many suspect plays a role in the documented rise of social and emotional problems among youth.

Supporting research insights

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded U of A researchers 20 Insight Development Grants worth $1.1 million and 12 Insight Grants worth $2.3 million.

Insight GrantsPeter BaskervillePatricia BoechlerIngo BrigandtGeorgios GeorgiouMark GierlMary IngrahamJacqueline LeightonDavid McConnellPeter Popkowski LeszczycAmy SchmitterMaite SnauwaertNatalie Van Deusen

Insight Development grantsOksana BabenkoBrandon AlakasHeather BrownOkan BulutJulia BylMonique CharestOdile CisnerosDamian CollinsMaureen EngelPriscilla FerrazziVern GlaserJason HarleyDavid LewkowichDavid McconnellSarah MooreTeresa PaslawskiDanielle PeersShanon PhelanLynette ShultzBonnie Stelmach

Partnership Development GrantDavid McConnell

Insight Partnership Grant - Letter of IntentCarla Peck

"This study will break new ground in understanding how the social environment matters for parenting and potentially shed light on root causes of social, emotional and behavioural problems in children and youth," said David McConnell, who received a $181,500 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant.

In all, U of A-led research projects worth more than $3.4 million-including 20 Insight Grants to support the highest levels of research excellence, 12 Insight Development Grants designed to support research in the initial stages, a partnership development grant and a letter of intent for a second partnership grant-were funded as part of the federal government's continued investment in the search for solutions to today's most pressing social, cultural, technological, environmental and economic issues.

McConnell says there are a number of ways chronic loneliness may influence parenting. One hypothesis is that chronically lonely parents are more fearful of negative social evaluation and are consequently overprotective, limiting opportunities for their children to engage in free and risky outdoor play.

A second hypothesis is that chronic loneliness diminishes parental self-regulation, resulting in more harsh and erratic and less warm and responsive parenting-which adversely affects children's social and emotional well-being.

A third explanation could be that participation in free and risky play in early childhood predicts social and emotional well-being in the first year of school.

For the study, McConnell will include a neighbourhood-diverse sample of 1,200 parents of preschool-age children with and without disabilities. The parents will complete a questionnaire in the first year and again in the second year, when their children are in kindergarten. McConnell notes that the preschool-to-kindergarten transition is a critical period in children's social and emotional development.

"The results of the study are expected to call into question the neoliberal premise, implicit in current policies and practices concerning parents, that parenting skill deficiencies are the problem and evidence-based parenting training is the solution," he said. "For policy-makers, the broad implication is that promoting social connectedness and participation may offer a pathway to parent, child and family well-being."

McConnell also received a $193,263 SSHRC Partnership Development Grant for a project titled "Support Needs and Service Pathways of Parents With Intellectual Impairment," which will involve colleagues in Calgary, Ontario, Quebec and the United States.