Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) is a unique behavioral parent training focused on helping parents of children who struggle with anxiety. Eli Lebowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and research scientist at the Yale Child Study Center, developed this approach. SPACE gained significant traction when it was published by The Atlantic and Forbes upon its creation. The idea was born from successful evidence-based parent training for externalizing behaviors. Dr. Lebowitz applied similar parent training principles to parents of children with anxiety. By allowing parents of anxious children to have their evidence-based parent training, families of young children and anxious children resistant to individual therapy felt more empowered.
SPACE is based on the idea that parents can help their children overcome anxiety by providing a supportive and nurturing environment. Rather than trying to fix or solve their child's anxiety, parents are encouraged to gradually reduce parental accommodations that may be inadvertently contributing to their child's anxiety. Parents are helping their children approach situations that evoke anxiety by reducing accommodations. An evidence-based component of treating children with anxiety is "exposure therapy." This involves gradually exposing children to the things that make them anxious in a safe and supportive environment. SPACE integrates this approach by working solely with the parents. These sessions help children learn that they can cope with their anxiety and that their fears are not as threatening as they may seem.
Research has shown that the SPACE approach can be an effective way to help children overcome anxiety. In a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), children whose parents received SPACE therapy showed significant improvement in their anxiety symptoms, similar to those who received traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy.
The SPACE approach is primarily designed for children who struggle with anxiety. SPACE is for children who meet the criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and more. However, it can also be helpful for parents who want to provide a supportive and nurturing environment for their children, regardless of whether or not their child has a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
Overall, the SPACE approach is most appropriate for families willing to participate actively in therapy and are committed to providing a supportive and nurturing environment for their children. While SPACE does not replace individual treatment, parents of children resistant to individual intervention may benefit from SPACE.
The length of time that Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) therapy lasts can vary depending on the child's and family's individual needs. The entire course of SPACE treatment typically consists of twelve weekly 60-minute sessions. The duration of treatment depends on the severity of the child's anxiety, the progress the family makes in therapy, and treatment goals. In some cases, families may continue to receive support and guidance even after the formal treatment has ended. Like any evidence-based therapy, SPACE is challenging and requires parents' commitment to see gains.
SPACE sessions generally only involve parents and caregivers. First, parents learn about the cycle of negative reinforcement within anxiety. Anxiety is a normal and necessary emotion. However, some children experience significant anxiety about situations that do not pose an immediate threat. This level of anxiety typically includes three aspects: physiological (e.g., fast heartbeat, stomachaches), cognitive (e.g., anxious thoughts), and behavioral (e.g., avoidance). When a child is experiencing anxiety, they will attempt to avoid the anxious stimuli to reduce their anxiety quickly.
These children often solicit their parents' help in moments of heightened anxiety. Parents are typically torn between feeling the need to reassure their children with a simultaneous desire to help them experience less stress. This feeling often results in parents providing accommodations. Accommodations are actions that parents are doing or things parents are avoiding because of their child's anxiety disorder.
SPACE focuses on providing emotional support and validation to children who struggle with anxiety. Parents are encouraged to empower their children to overcome their fears. With the support and coaching of a therapist, parents learn how to reduce anxiety-reinforcing accommodations to help children overcome anxiety and build resilience. Families that participate in SPACE sessions can be guaranteed to know how to support their child during anxious moments and how to begin changing their behaviors to reduce their child's anxiety.